Home > Essays > Doujin Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Doujin Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

11 November, 2011

I recently managed to wrap my claws around Takeshi Nogami’s latest work, Keiko Kato North Africa Military Photos 1943 (加東圭子戦場寫眞記録1943).  It is, of course, a doujinshi (independently-published book), released only at this year’s summer Comic Market event (Comiket, for those not fluent in otaku jargon).  It’s a fascinating text, and I’ll run a proper review later, but for now I’m primarily interested in its status as a book — that is, as a singular physical object consisting of bound pages printed with ink.  That such objects are especially revered within otaku culture can help shed additional light on one of the current challenges within the anime-studies field: establishing how, exactly, we should approach the topic of otaku consumption.

But back to the book, for a moment.  It’s a lovely specimen, indeed — printed on good, thick stock, with a foil-embossed cardstock cover whose texture evokes well-aged leather.  Quite the class act, particularly considering Nogami’s original 800-yen asking price.

Unlike most of Nogami’s books, this was available only at his Comiket booth, and not at any of his usual online retailers.  Even the big Akihabara consignment shops, which normally order up extra print runs of popular Comiket releases, have no copies available for mail-order.  (It’s possible that they may have copies at their physical storefronts, but since Akihabara is a very expensive plane ticket from my current location, I am, at present, unable to test this hypothesis.)  This is somewhat unusual scarcity for a doujinshi, but not exceptionally so — Comiket is rather infamous for its exclusives, which twice a year tempt otherwise housebound otaku to brave monstrous lines in the raging heat or freezing cold, like pilgrims in search of holy relics.

Tokyo Big Sight convention center, home to the twice-annual Comic Market.

Why expend so much effort for mere books or merchandise, particularly when digital piracy allows doujinshi to freely proliferate across the Internet?  Why should the Comic Market occupy such a central place in the communal otaku identity, so much so that the convention center hosting it has become a staple image within otaku-oriented anime and manga?  Basic reasoning holds the answer to be, “because the physical books or merchandise goods offer something unattainable through digital facsimiles.”  But what, exactly?

Authenticity and the Cult of the Original

Walter Benjamin addressed this question seventy-five years ago in his landmark essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  For Benjamin, the original work of art possesses an “aura” — a palpable sense of authenticity — which cannot survive the process of mechanical reproduction.  The lithograph is but a diminished facsimile of the painting.  The filmed theatre performance never fully conveys the precious intimacy of that one singular moment in space and time.

As one who grew up in the heady days of America OnLine and Compuserve, I was tempted to scoff at Benjamin when I first encountered his essay as a young undergrad.  The “aura,” I felt, was nothing more than the feeble protest of a Luddite who couldn’t accept the changing face of modernity.  That it continued to be embraced even into the dot-com era was, I believed, due largely to the influence of high-art gatekeepers who blanched at the thought that anything preferred by the mass could possibly be given the title of “culture.”  With time and exposure, my views mellowed, and a recent visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art gave me a fresh appreciation for what Benjamin was aiming at.

Standing in the presence of an ancient painting, seeing the texture and patina of the canvas or silk, feeling the breath of seven hundred years upon your face, is a tremendously humbling experience.  The “aura” of the work has nothing to do with the artist’s use of line or color, with the style of brushwork or the approach to rendering human figures, or even with the emotional potency of the piece.  It is, as Benjamin puts it, the work’s

presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. … The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced1.

Mechanical reproduction may help facilitate a more democratic approach to the appreciation of the work of art in an abstract sense, but it cannot allow that original work to be in multiple places at once.  All the elements of artistic technique may still be appreciated through a facsimile, and even the work’s emotional impact may well survive intact.  But, at a fundamental level, the facsimile is not the original, and the distinction between the two makes itself forcefully evident when standing in the museum gallery.

And indeed, it is within the walls of the museum where the notion of the aura enjoys the most sway.  Benjamin notes that, since the time of antiquity, the concept of the aura has been closely intertwined with the use of art for ritual purposes2.  As the individual work is anchored to a particular point in space, access to it can be controlled.  Game Design Advance blogger Charles J. Pratt touches on this when he notes that the culture of high art “was born in the worship of sacred objects.”  The world of fine art demands the singular, the unique, the authentic — the original.

But what of books (or games, in Pratt’s case)?  Benjamin notes that,

for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.  To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility3.  (my emphasis)

The game is coded with a pre-programmed ruleset capable of being executed, in seemingly identical fashion, on any computer with a compatible operating system.  The text of a book is typeset, and its cover designed, to produce thousands of seemingly-identical copies, so that each buyer may own the “definitive” work.  No original exists, at least not in the sense of the painting, the statue, or the building. There is no ur-book from which these mass produced volumes sprang — just a design that, increasingly, resides in abstract form on a computer disk until it is ready to be sent to the printer’s shop.

Yet if the volumes created through mechanical reproduction start out seemingly identical, they do not forever remain that way.  Old books acquire their own patina through the years, betraying across their creased pages the touch of countless fingers.  Nitrocellulose film stocks visibly decay during decades of storage, requiring that film archivists meticulously splice together multiple partially-decomposed copies in order to produce a “restored original” print.  There is, indisputably, something like an aura attached to a mass-produced object that has, through good fortune, weathered the years without crumbling into dust.

For Benjamin, the result of moving the work of art out of the gallery and into the semi-public space of the store, or the wholly public space of the billboard or poster, is the replacement of ritual with politics4.  Mass production transforms culture into mass culture — the culture of the mass, with all its Marxist implications.  Yet it seems that Benjamin should have known that public consumption was not necessarily the ultimate destiny of the results of mass production.  In his 1931 essay, “Unpacking My Library,” Benjamin writes touchingly about the quiet joys of collecting.  He focuses on his love for rare and unusual books, but his account nevertheless betrays more than a bit of what Thomas Lamarre refers to as the “mania [of some] to take items out of general circulation and into the safety of their rooms5.”

Lamarre, of course, was referring to the otaku, and I like to think that Benjamin would have felt something of a kinship with these creatures.

Animalistic Rituals of Consumption

Otaku are quite famous for their collecting habits — and, increasingly, for their status as reliable consumers in an otherwise-stagnant economy.  This association with capitalist consumption has proved greatly vexing to certain thinkers, chief among them being Hiroki Azuma.  In his Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Azuma channels Alexandre Kojève to argue that, in the contemporary postmodern world where grand narratives — systems and concepts which foster a sense of societal unity6 — no longer hold sway, humans can only adapt by retreating into snobbery or animalism.  While the otaku of the 1980s were eager to engage in snobbery by immersing themselves in the elaborate fictional worlds of works like Gundam, contemporary otaku merely consume images in an animalistic fashion, seeking out those which proved to be most productive of moé, the particular emotional response they so desire.

Otaku consumption, according to Azuma, is indiscriminate.  The position and status of the author, enshrined within classical Western theory as the almighty auteur, becomes unsustainable when derivative works can be consumed right alongside the originals, and regarded as being of equivalent merit7.  Works are judged solely on the basis of their ability to instill feelings of moé, without any consideration of higher or more noble qualities8.  For Azuma, the otaku are almost completely animalized — “governed by a simple logic of lack and satisfaction9” — but the primacy of Comiket demonstrates that this cannot entirely be the case.

If otaku were merely interested in the undifferentiated consumption of images, then the Internet would seem the ideal place for such activity.  Given the proliferation of pirated content, otaku could continue to graze without limit.  Yet the purchasing, acquisition, and collecting of physical books persists as a primary otaku activity even as those same books, scanned into digital files, weave their way through Japanese P2P networks.  A veneration for the material exists here that supercedes an abstract conception of the work of art.  This is where I take issue with authors like Michael Betancourt who twist Benjamin to argue for an “aura of the digital” in an effort to tear down the hierarchy between physical media and digital works.  Certainly, digital reproductions can have meaning and convey emotional value, and indeed can do so just as well as their physical “originals.”  Given this, and given the current ubiquitousness of digital file-sharing networks, one would have expected physical media to die out long ago, particularly where the supposedly un-particular otaku are concerned.

Yet this evidently has not happened.  And Comiket remains a sufficiently robust enterprise to suggest that some reason other than honor or charity is at play.  This leads me to two preliminary conclusions: first, that otaku are not quite as thoroughly animalized as Azuma seems to believe, and second, that something like an aura can exist within the products of mechanical mass reproduction.  The greater ritual value of the singular work of art enshrined within the gallery or the cathedral exists alongside the lesser ritual value of enshrining the unique physical copy of a work within one’s room.

Azuma may argue that the animalized otaku is driven in all things — even socialization — by a fundamental selfishness10.  But I would venture to hypothesize that there just might be a higher connection that binds the otaku, beyond the deeply individual question of which character-design elements most effectively produce feelings of moé.  The spirit of the connoisseur, whose absence was lamented by Azuma and Toshio Okada, remains alive and well within the otaku community.  It simply exists, not in the college club room of fans meticulously analyzing scenes from Macross, but in the convention exhibit hall and the Akihabara consignment shop.  It is a spirit of authentic culture lived not alongside the materialist trappings of consumer capitalism, but within them.

It is a spirit which holds that a book is not merely a collection of words, sentences, paragraphs, and images, but a relic capable of anchoring the intangible world of fantasy to a specific position in space, within the here-and-now.

—–

So this is the first in what I hope will eventually become a series of essays.  My goal for these pieces is that they’ll fill the role formerly occupied by classroom Blackboard posts — more formal than a classroom discussion, but more casual than a proper seminar paper or journal article.  Basically, they’ll be a way for me to try out new ideas and see what works.  Already, I can tell that I probably shouldn’t expect to hang my hat on being the next great Benjamin scholar; that’s a pretty well-traveled road.

But you also don’t learn that sort of thing without trying.

—–

Notes:

1 – Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, Harry Zohn, trans., New York: Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 220-221.

2 – Ibid., p. 224.

3 – Ibid.

4 – Ibid.

5 – Thomas Lamarre. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation, Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. xvii.

6 – Hiroki Azuma. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, trans., Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. 28.

7 – Ibid., p. 60.

8 – Ibid., p. 88.

9 – Ibid., p. 92.

10 – Ibid., p. 93.

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