Home > Essays > “Animalized” Otaku and the World of Moé

“Animalized” Otaku and the World of Moé

24 December, 2011

Not my room. Just FYI.

It’s Christmas Eve, and for a certain segment of the population, that means we have plenty of time on our hands to spend in front of our keyboards, ensconced in a fluffy menagerie of images, books, and other media. As such, I’ve been doing some thinking, particularly about upcoming journal articles/conference presentations and where I’d like to take my research in the future.

I’ve wanted, for some time now, to find some way to connect my work with Akira Mizuta Lippit’s theorizing of the animal, which I find to be absolutely fascinating.  His Electric Animal, while incredibly dense and not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, is rife with intriguing ideas — both Lippit’s own, as well as those of philosophers whose work he summarizes — about how we conceive of animality, and about the relative positioning of the animal and the human within discourse.  It’s such an expansive and multifaceted work, in fact, that its applications remain — for me, at least — rather cryptic.  Through personal discussion with the author, I eventually learned that he regards Electric Animal as being the “preface to a book not yet written,” which doesn’t necessarily help to clarify things.

Two notions from the book, however, I find to be particularly useful when thinking about otaku and moé life.  The first is Lippit’s invocation of Martin Heidegger’s views on the animal.  An extended quote from Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” sets the tone, and I will here reproduce it in its entirety:

The world is not the mere collection of the countable or uncountable, familiar and unfamiliar things that are at hand.  But neither is it a merely imagined framework added by our representation to the sum of such given things.  The world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we believe ourselves to be at home.  World is never an object that stands before us and can be seen.  World is the ever-nonobjective to which we are subject as long as the paths of birth and death, blessing and curse keep us transported into Being.  Wherever those utterly essential decisions of our history are made, are taken up and abandoned by us, go unrecognized and are rediscovered by new inquiry, there the world worlds.  A stone is worldless.  Plant and animal likewise have no world; but they belong to the covert throng of a surrounding into which they are linked1.

I will return to “The Origin of the Work of Art” in a future essay, for I think it has important things to say in re: laying a philosophical groundwork for moé.  For now, let us focus on this passage.  Lippit concludes that “Heidegger’s ‘world’ is one that precedes such anthropocentric notions as subjectivity, phenomenality, and consciousness: the ‘world worlds,’ for Heidegger, even in the absence of human consciousness”2.  The world exists prior to our experience of it, but we are at least able to perceive our distance from the world; the animal has no distance from the world, and could not conceive of such, even if it had.

Why for?  Language:

In the current view, language is held to be a kind of communication. […] But language is not only and not primarily an audible and written expression of what is to be communicated.  It not only puts forth in words and statements what is overtly or covertly intended to be communicated; language alone brings beings as beings into the open for the first time.  Where there is no language, as in the Being of stone, plant, and animal, there is also no openness of beings, and consequently no openness of nonbeing and of the empty3.

The human capacity for language is what allows us to recognize our distance from the world: by allowing us to communicate in the abstract, without reference to the concrete, the worldly, and the here-and-now.  Language allows us to recognize that there is a world that exists outside of our capacity to perceive it as thus; it gives us the tools to recognize what our senses alone cannot.  It also, critically, allows us to recognize our pending absence from the world — death.  For we could not conceive of death without the power of abstract language; if all we could speak of were what we understood through direct sensual experience, then it would be categorically impossible to speak of death.  (Since, in order for one to have experience of death, one must die, after which speech becomes a rather more difficult prospect.)

Separating the sensually-perceivable from the linguistically-conceivable can be a tricky prospect in real life — witness Descartes’ epistemological crisis in Discourse on the Method — but it becomes rather easier when dealing with realms for which direct sensual experience is impossible.  For example, the affective realm of moé.  This world (and I do believe it to be a world, in the same sense as the worlds which Heidegger claims man can create through art) is not one that can be touched, tasted, smelt, heard, or seen — at least, not directly.  Instead, we can only know of moé through the power of interpretive communication.  The artist, in a Heideggerian manner, creates a work which bridges the imperceptible realm of moé with the perceptible realm of the here-and-now.  The artist carefully fashions a pose and expression for a character that combine to reveal a sliver of the moé-world, and bring it into ours.  We can perceive of moé only through art, for only art provides us with the vocabulary to comprehend idealized concepts which cannot exist in perceptible reality.

The fundamental angst of the moé-otaku, however, is that the very faculty of language which allows him to comprehend the world of moé also forces him to recognize his unbridgeable distance from it.  Hiroki Azuma may bemoan the animalism of contemporary otaku, but he slightly misses the point with his word choice (though, to be fair, Azuma refers to animalism in a Kojèvean sense, not a Heideggerian one).  For animalism, in a Heideggerian sense, does not entail mindless envelopment within the world; instead, it entails a poverty of perception.  The animal, lacking access to language, has only an environment, not a world.  It exists entirely and utterly within its environment, but lacks access to the abstract bounties of thought inherent to the concept of world.

Thus, for otaku, true animalism would imply a Swiftian condition: one in which, ensconced in sarcophagi constructed from anime and eroge merchandise, they found that they could no longer feel moé.  The pain of lack implicit to the experience of moé is therefore a necessary consequence of being able to feel it at all.

The second notion I find to be useful is, mercifully, rather less depressing.  It concerns Lippit’s notion of the animetaphor: “animal and metaphor, a metaphor made flesh, a living metaphor that is by definition not a metaphor, antimetaphor — ‘animetaphor'”4.  It is a multifaceted concept, and one to which I will return another day.  For now, let us consider just one fragmentary animetaphor.

Recall Heidegger’s notion that language is a precondition for being able to think of death.  The animal, lacking access to language, thus finds itself in an uncanny position: it cannot know death, and therefore cannot die.  The animal cannot even cease to exist, in the sense of ceasing to be; for to be a being within the world implies a distinction between the being and its environment, and the animal, for Heidegger, is inseparable from its own.  Thus, the animal merely ceases at the point which we would call “death.”  The animal is as a ghost: there, then suddenly not.  Where once lie an animal now lies a carcass, as thoroughly a part of the environment as a stone, a pool, or a gust of wind.

The animal’s inability to die lends it a particularly powerful quality as animetaphor.  André Bazin, in his “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” writes of art as a tool for embalming: “the image helps us to remember the subject and preserve him from a second spiritual death”5.  But whereas the painted portrait is, for Bazin, necessarily limited by the subjectivity of the painter’s hand, “[t]he photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.  No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model”6.  The photographic negative is the physical record of photons once reflected off the subject’s own skin.  It is a death mask, preserved in unsettling detail.  The cinema, as with the animal, forces us to confront death and acknowledge the limits of existence.  “All photographs,” Lippit summarizes, “are of future corpses”7.

Yet if the photographic cinema forces us to confront the inevitability of death, the animated cinema affords us a safe refuge from such knowledge.  Shingo of Heisei Democracy, in his seminal article, “The Moe Image,” summarizes the matter thusly:

[Moé reinforces] a mythical status quo in which the moerer / viewer / player is not forced to acknowledge his shortcomings (much less the ones that may or may not have caused him to turn to this particular form of entertainment in the first place). Instead, he is accepted “as he is” by the heroine, and moments of happiness with her are preserved until time immortal with no fear of aging or falling out of love. This, I believe, is one of the central attractions of moe [sic].  [my emphasis]

Rather than forcing us to confront the fact of our mortality, moé works invite us to linger in a world where death holds no meaning.  The illustrated character is as thoroughly a part of her environment as Heidegger’s animal.  A character may be transplanted from one work to another, but she can never exist as a truly separate entity.  She is forever bound to a certain context — be it the context of the canonical narrative, the context of the fan-produced derivative work, or the context of the fan’s incorporeal fantasy.

To return to Azuma: he is not entirely off-base.  Contrary to what he claims, the otaku are categorically not animalized, either in whole or in part.  However, the otaku experience is marked by a drive towards animalization; a drive which can never be satisfied.  The ultimate goal of engaging with moé works is to reach a world where death and time no longer hold any meaning, and to be so wholly embedded within that world that the boundary between the otaku and the moé-world ceases to exist.  But the very faculty which causes the otaku to desire the moé-world is precisely that which will prevent him from ever integrating with it.  Where Azuma sees the otaku as brainless animals feeding at the trough of consumer capitalism, I see instead a tribe of romantics haunted by our own humanity, doomed in our quest by the very quality which leads us to strive.

—–

Notes:

1 – Martin Heidegger. “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, David Farrel Krell, ed., San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993, p. 170.

2 – Akira Mizuta Lippit. Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p. 57.

3 – Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” p. 198.

4 – Lippit, Electric Animal, p. 165.

5 – André Bazin. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in Film Theory and Criticism, 7th ed., Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, eds., New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 159.

6 – Ibid., p. 162.

7 – Lippit, Electric Animal, p. 183.

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  1. 26 December, 2011 at 11:13

    “realm of moé … is not one that can be touched, tasted, smelt, heard, or seen”

    Moe is seen & heard. The cute gesture is seen. The cute expression is heard. This is how they enter our conscious through sense perception. Which brings me to:

    “We can perceive of moé only through art”

    Moe/cute is not so abstracted from reality. The real girl can act in a manner moe, both visual and verbal. These moe bits can be replicated in the real; art is not necessary to produce them, unless you wish to claim life as nothing more than performance art. While a real girl cannot be completely moe, all the time (human nature is a bit more complex than a few personality quirks), neither can the anime character, for they cannot be anything ‘all the time’, for they do not exist all the time, only in the moment of viewing (in a way, this too applies to real human relations, from our individual & personal perspectives, thus the characterization of real human Being).

    ***

    As for anime/fiction-in-general existing as a world beyond death, I don’t buy that because the artwork itself can die. It too is bound by physical restraints, and no cloning/reproduction is a perfect escape from death (the human race in its multiplied entirety could be completely extinguished, and so could every copy of K-ON!, though god forbid either one of these from ever occurring).

    An anime/fiction could die in a less universal and more personal sense, if for some reason or another you lose access to a work (poverty, ignorance, rarity, exclusivity, etc). Thus, the fantasy object CAN die; while the memory of the fantasy object can live on, so can the memory of the real object live on, thus we lose the death-construct differentiator between reality and moe/fiction/fantasy.

  2. 31 December, 2011 at 00:59

    Michael is Low on Hit Points :

    “realm of moé … is not one that can be touched, tasted, smelt, heard, or seen”

    Moe is seen & heard. The cute gesture is seen. The cute expression is heard. This is how they enter our conscious through sense perception.

    True, but in order for the gesture to be seen or for the expression to be heard, it must first be rendered into art. As Shingo suggests in the Heisei Democracy article, moé has a fundamentally aesthetic aspect to it; to trigger feelings of moé, one needs not just a particular gesture or expression, but a particular gesture or expression represented in a certain way.

    Consider the various stock poses in anime and eroge. Two images, each featuring characters performing the same basic gesture (say, where the character flashes the “V” sign and grins outward at the viewer), may each generate differing levels of moé in the viewer: the viewer responds more to one image than the other. There could be various reasons: composition, lighting, general mise-en-scéne (props, “set” design, and the like), or even specific details regarding the rendering of the character herself (like a more-angular or more-rounded character-design aesthetic).

    I would argue that the gesture or the expression can only be considered as potentially evocative of moé. To truly be considered a moé element, the gesture or expression must be combined with, and communicated through, the expressive skill of the artist. That was my original point when I wrote that moé cannot be perceived directly — it can only be perceived indirectly, as interpreted through art.

    Which brings me to:

    “We can perceive of moé only through art”

    Moe/cute is not so abstracted from reality. The real girl can act in a manner moe, both visual and verbal.

    For purposes of clarity, I’ll address the following points individually.

    Shingo, in his article, did a pretty good job, I felt, of delving into what we might call the psychoanalytic problems of locating moé in real persons. The root of the problem is that the moé character occupies a subject position which is untenable for a mature, fully-developed and properly-socialized human being. (I believe you acknowledge this point a few sentences down when you note that a real person cannot project moé at all times.) For moé to be possible with respect to human beings, it would have to move beyond being an individual, private response and become a public participatory performance, where the effort of the one performing moé must be matched by a willing suspension of disbelief in the viewer.

    If moé is possible with respect to human beings (I believe it is not, but for the sake of argument…), then it is necessarily going to be a circumstantial, filtered facsimile of true moé, which does not require such performance.

    These moe bits can be replicated in the real; art is not necessary to produce them, unless you wish to claim life as nothing more than performance art.

    Life itself is not necessarily a performance art, but it must become one temporarily in order to produce something akin to moé. I would also argue that moé is not an emotion which maps perfectly onto any one conventional emotion applicable to real-life interactions between persons. It is neither love, lust, adoration, veneration, protectiveness, or excitement — though it potentially contains elements of all of these.

    While a real girl cannot be completely moe, all the time (human nature is a bit more complex than a few personality quirks), neither can the anime character, for they cannot be anything ‘all the time’, for they do not exist all the time, only in the moment of viewing (in a way, this too applies to real human relations, from our individual & personal perspectives, thus the characterization of real human Being).

    But a central component of moé, as Shingo points out, is precisely the one specific frozen moment of time which art preserves for viewing. It is rather like putting the cart before the horse to argue that anime characters cannot be moé at all times, which holds them to a human standard of chronology to which they are evidently not subject. Put another way, the character does not exist outside of the work. The work, in turn, obeys only its own chronology, not that of our own. We can always rewind the tape, return to a previous chapter on a DVD, or simply admire the static image. The human performer is the only one who would have to convey moé all the time; the anime character need only convey moé at the moment the viewer chooses to view.

    ***

    As for anime/fiction-in-general existing as a world beyond death, I don’t buy that because the artwork itself can die. It too is bound by physical restraints, and no cloning/reproduction is a perfect escape from death (the human race in its multiplied entirety could be completely extinguished, and so could every copy of K-ON!, though god forbid either one of these from ever occurring).

    An anime/fiction could die in a less universal and more personal sense, if for some reason or another you lose access to a work (poverty, ignorance, rarity, exclusivity, etc). Thus, the fantasy object CAN die; while the memory of the fantasy object can live on, so can the memory of the real object live on, thus we lose the death-construct differentiator between reality and moe/fiction/fantasy.

    Here we get into parsing the details of Heidegger’s meaning. It is from him that I derive the notion of death expressed in this article, so we must pay attention to Heidegger’s original meaning and intent. Artwork self-evidently cannot die, for death, in Heidegger’s reasoning, requires conscious acknowledgement of the fact or possibility of life’s ending. (This ties into Heidegger’s broader notion of Being, or dasein, which defines much of his work; I suggest finding a good primer on Heidegger for more insight into this concept.)

    Death is thus figured as the ability of the being to express its absence from the world. Something which cannot conceive of death in the abstract, therefore, has no language with which to express its absence from the world, and thus cannot “die.” As you can see, death, for Heidegger, is not the same thing as ceasing to exist, which is how we commonly use the term. I’m attempting to engage with death in a Heideggerian sense, so this usage must be kept firmly in mind.

    I admit that my article somewhat confuses the common and Heideggerian notions of death, and that my choice of emphasis in the block quote doesn’t necessarily help matters.

    I suppose a better way to argue matters would be to sidestep the issue of temporality altogether, for it is there that we encounter the greatest dissonance between common knowledge and Heidegger’s thought. Instead, let us focus on what it means for an animal, in Heidegger’s sense, to be unable to die. By not being able to express its absence from the world, the animal is also unable to distance itself from it. The animal remains so thoroughly enmeshed within its environment that it cannot position itself in relation to its surroundings — thus we say that the animal has no “world”.

    (It is perhaps worth noting that Heidegger’s views on the animal have not gone unchallenged. In particular, Jacques Derrida has critiqued Heidegger’s death argument as being incomplete, but that is a topic for another day. And possibly another writer.)

    It is this state of animality, made explicit through the lack of the ability to know death, which, I feel, is the desirable end-point of otaku activity. Perfect and total immersion in the world of moé, to the point where it is no longer perceived as a world at all. The point isn’t that the work, or the otaku, would never cease to exist, but that the otaku would never be able to conceive of his absence from the world of moé which is implied through the concept of death. To be free from death, in this case, is to be truly, ultimately, inseparable from the moé world. It is a state utterly unachievable, but which holds power as an ideal and an unconscious driving force behind otaku activity.

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