All posts by Tak

Studying Keitai (or ‘Mobile Phones’ in Japanese)

Mizuko Ito, an anthropologist who specializes in technology and youth culture in Japan, has announced on her website that she with Daisuke Okabe and Misa Matsuda (a psychologist and a sociologist based in Japan) has co-edited a volume titled Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life. (via her brother, Joi Ito)

Aside from making available the table of contents (in her post), she has also posted the introduction to the volume as a pdf file. See also some of the backcover endorsements at MIT Press, the book’s publisher.

In reading through this introduction, the following two paragraphs caught my attention. She discusses how keitai (the Japanese word for mobile phone) technology, despite the fact that it was first targetted for the savvy business person, has effected a new kind of interpersonal “intimacy.” Then from this focus on intimate social relationships she opens up her analytical aperture to discuss how it has been used “outdoors.” There she observes the way these tiny communication devices have “coloniz[ed …] the small and seemingly inconsequential in-between temporalities and spaces of everyday life.”

One cross-cutting theme is the salience of “the personal” and discourses of intimacy in keitai communications. Decisive was the shift in the late nineties from keitai primarily identified as a business tool to identification as a tool for personal communication and play. Now, even when being used for “serious” work purposes, keitai in the workplace and in public places generally (and often negatively) invoke “personal business.” Even before the keitai Internet, voice communications created a juxtaposition between private affairs and public place, tagging the keitai as a narcissistic device that invaded the communal with the demands of the personal. Now, widespread mobile email and other online communication tools mean that these intimate spheres are even more pervasively present; mobile text and visual communication can colonize even communal places where telephony would be frowned upon (ie., public transportation, classrooms, restaurants). The micro-coordination between family members and the ubiquitous spaces of intimacy between young couples and peers are the most evocative of these new dimensions of always-on intimate connection. Even workplace studies have documented the keitai’s now indispensable role in coordinating small and tightly coordinated workgroups. These tele-cocoons and full-time intimate communities represent an expansion of the long-standing sphere of intimate relations. The papers in this volume have only just begun to explore the profound implications for the production of social identity, the experience of public and urban spaces, and the structuring of institutions such as the households, couples, and peer groups.

This dimension of the pervasively personal is tied to an out-of-doors and low-profile vision of informational and communication networks which goes against the metaphors of indoor, immersive experience that have dominated our imaginings of virtual reality, cyberspace and Internet social life. The keitai’s social value is tied to its colonization of the small and seemingly inconsequential in-between temporalities and spaces of everyday life. Whether it is the quick text reminder sent by a multi-tasking housewife, the service technician who wants to keep track of which of their team members is out to lunch, or young couples texting sweet nothings as they take the bus to school, keitai connectivity is a seeping membrane between the real and virtual, here and elsewhere, rather than a portal of highfidelity connectivity that demands full and sustained engagement. Metaphors of keitai engagement are as often side-by-side as they are face to face, as much about ambient and peripheral awareness as they are about demanding attention in the here and now.

This is thought-provoking for me and it resonates with what I had always thought about the use of mobile phones. The way people (at least in Japan, although this I guess might be catching on in the U.S.) keep photos of friends in their keitai had always reminded me of Christian Metz’s discussion about how photographs are akin to the Freudian notion of the fetish, in part because of the portability of printed images (as opposed to film) (Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish” October, Vol. 34. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 81-90.

An Anthropology Newspaper @ antropologi.info

Lorenz (welcome back from your summer break!) at antropologi.info has set up a test page for a newspaper for the anthropology blogosphere. If reading RSS feeds is not for you, this newspaper might be a good alternative.

By the way, I personally like the fact that Lorenz includes Global Voices Online, a fascinating project involving citizen writers, journalists, and activists all over the world. He allows it ten headlines, while for the others he gives only four.

Tracking Uma Adang

Somewhere between my undergraduate and two graduate programs, I lost a bundle of anthropology books. Before my short and unsuccessful stint as a salaryman in Tokyo a decade ago, I gave my small library away, thinking I would never enter a doctorate program.

But when I in fact did become a Ph.D. student, some of those books were required reading for my core classes. I should have kept those books, I told myself (all those margin notes and underlines!), but decided against buying them again. Except for the classics in anthro theory, I thought it was foolish to make the same purchase twice. Especially ethnographies.

But there were a few exceptions, and one was Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, a work that takes you right into the Bornean rain forests of South Kalimantan. I read this ethnography in 1994 and I remember falling in love it. At the time I didn’t quite understand her arguments, but I enjoyed the way she wrote about her encounter with Uma Adang, a shamaness, a local leader, and her main “informant” in the book. The photo of this Meratus Dayak woman, smiling while cradling a white doll, was for me what Tsing described as “a disorienting caricature of motherhood.”

That image of Uma Adang came to me when I read Tsing’s latest book Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connections. Prompted by a comment by Savage Minds regular Colin Danby, I thought I might post something on Tsing’s nuanced perspective on the way globalization is interpreted in South Kalimantan (The book is an on-the-ground look at the way different groups, such as conservationists, logging companies, and local communities, talk with and past one another in their relationship to the rain forest). But when I opened the book, all I could do was to recall the powerful image of Uma Adang holding a white doll.

Like her earlier book, Friction also presents Uma Adang as a marginal voice that embodies Tsing’s critique of the global political and economic network of power. Although the Meratus Dayak shamaness has a much less prominent role in the new book than in Diamond Queen, I could not help but fixate on this figure.

For one, the way I imagined Uma Adang has now changed. The younger image of her now evokes a different set of emotions for me when juxtaposed against the photograph of her in the new book: she is sitting in what looks like a bar and her expression is solemn — broken but defiant. Behind her is a cigarette ad that has the word “BOMB” in huge letters. The caption reads “Better you had brought me a bomb…” Her explosive anger is directed against the deforestation of the jungle by the logging companies, which by her account is stripping away Meratak culture itself. The smiling figure in the first book now looks to me as one of naivete, expressing truimphant exuberance in carving out a political space for herself and other Meratus Dayak.

But Uma Adang and Tsing also retain their playfulness in the new book, especially in the chapter on biodiversity. And it makes for a nice comparison with a chapter in her earlier book.

In “The History of the World” chapter of Diamond Queen, Tsing writes about her friend’s version of global history, all in fragments, in different narrative forms and temporal registers, and full of parodic mimicry of the dominant discourse. This history, which Tsing treats as an “official” history, is to be read for its coherent unity and political message. But rather than celebrating it wholesale as a moment of political resistance, the anthropologist also recognizes aspects of the shamaness’s historiography that ends up serving the national interest of the Indonesian state. At the end of the chapter this nuanced examination of a local story leads the author to reflect upon the state of identity politics in the U.S., and writes that “the cutting edge of political organizing often is the simultaneously dissociating and validating effect of parroting dominant discourse out of context.”

In the new book Friction, she examines the concept “biodiversity” in a chapter titled ““This earth, this island Borneo” [Biodiversity assessment as a multicultural exercise].” In it she relies on a similar move of parody as a critical endeavor in which she too takes part. Citing both proponents and critics of the promotion of “biodiversity,” Tsing brings to this discussion an ethnographic account of what it means to make a list. Here Uma Adang lists all the flowers and mushrooms and the fish and lizards, in disregard of Linnaean nomenclature and full of strange and non-scientific markers of identification. This, however, is not a simple case of a local critique of Western discourse. Instead, they both acknowledge the pleasure of listing, of writing down and numbering, and hence, of having that very power to picture the world course through their veins.

Uma Adang loved the idea that I was writing down the list and enumerating each item. […] The list took on all the pleasures of writing, counting, and classifying: Uma Adang and I were pretending to be bureaucrats with the authority of state and international codification. We were ordering the world by naming it. As Uma Adang explained to me, “Everyone knows these names; but not everyone knows how to organize them properly.” (168)

Tsing’s virtuosity as a writer shines forth — a partial list of fauna and flora runs down the page margins — and it reminds me of the discipline’s excitement over “the poetics and politics” of experimental ethnographic writing (and readers of Levi-Strauss and Derrida will perhaps recall here “The Writing Lesson” in Tristes Tropique). There are some risks, in my opinion and acknowledged by Tsing herself, of investing in a figure such as Uma Adang a certain subjectivity that by virtue of representing her in an ethnography domesticates the marginal within our own political agenda [footnote 1]. Yet this issue is repeatedly taken up in the book, not only in Borneo but also in other parts of the world. And this moment of parody — playful but also serious — is at least a partial answer to the question surrounding the politics of representation.

I am sure there are other compelling “informants” who span multiple books (I invite readers to comment on who might be other such figures in the annals of anthropology), but for some reason Uma Adang has made an impression on me. There are, I think, many possibilities in writing about the same person in different books over time. At the end of the first book there was a sense of a closure for my understanding of Uma Adang; when the new books takes her up again, it for me opened up new avenues of thought. This opening and closing of someone’s character is a rhetorical strategy I think might warrant some further discussion.

Postscript: As I work on my dissertation, I am finding myself increasingly drawn to good ethnographic writing as models for my own work. So in hindsight, I really wish I hadn’t given away my ethnographies!

[footnote 1: I am thinking here Vicente Rafael’s comments on Tsing’s earlier writings, but I think it equally applies to Friction.]

The Genealogy of Neoliberal Capitalism and the Atlantic Slave Trade

A few days ago I came across Long Sunday, a group blog whose contributors write, for the most part, on continental theory writ large. Reading the posts there have taken a while because the comments are often magisterial in length (not unlike some of the posts here at SM!)

Quite frankly I am jaw-drop amazed at the high level of discussion there and I am glad I came across this wonderful site. I have been on-and-off following the individual blogs of some of the contributors (such as Fort Kant, Charlotte Street), but having one place to go to get my RSS feed fix will be convenient.

One particular post, begun by Jodi Dean, caught my attention. She has launched a learned discussion about the ways in which neoliberal capitalism produces a fantasy of Capital as the Real. Taking cue from Slavoj Zizek‘s concept of the imaginary real, she suggests that this neoliberalist fantasy is so sublime (and subliminal) that when disguised in the language of the Symbolic (economic laws, for example) it tends to obfuscate the institutional violence of state power at both the national and international levels.

Here’s a long quote from this post, which neatly summarizes a paper she has made available online titled “Enjoying Neoliberalism“:

Zizek argues that Capital is Real in several senses: it is the ‘positive condition of hegemonic struggle’ (Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, 319), it ‘sets a limit to resignification,’ and it determines “the structure of the material social processes themselves’ (Ticklish Subject, 276). But, to assert that Capital is Real is to embrace neoliberal ideology, to accept its premises without a struggle, without inquiry into how neoliberal faith in the market has come to produce a sense of its own inevitability. What is necessary, then, is an account of the neoliberal imaginary allied with the Real.

One might want to claim that Zizek’s elaboration of the Real in terms of an imaginary Real, a symbolic Real, and a real Real and his specification of capital as a symbolic Real (one that operates in terms of basic formulae or persists as an underlying structure) contributes to thinking about capitalism insofar as it points to a logic determining and distorting, that is, forming, the basic matrix of contemporary socio-political life. I disagree. The specification of capital as formulae invests economics with a scientific status, with the ability to formulate laws or truths about the world that tell us how the world functions. Such an investment occludes and naturalizes the roles of governments, both as national states and as international organizations, in creating property rights, establishing corporations, producing a functioning tax system, and sustaining and militarily defending the very infrastructure necessary for business.

As I understand her argument, neoliberal capitalism produces a fantasy around the very notions that guarantee it, such as free trade, private property rights, the right for governments to tax and enforce regulation, etc. These elements of neoliberal capitalism, however, are backed by the state’s fundamental power to mete out punishment. In her short essay she explores this idea through a sharp analysis of the shopaholic and the criminal as two prominent subject positions in neoliberal capitalism.

In her discussion she takes Zizek to task for downplaying the role of disciplinary power in neoliberal capitalism while overemphasizing the truimph of unfettered exchange-value. She asks:

How is that we have been taken in by capital? That we find ourselves so entrenched in it that escape seems impossible, a step into oblivion?

To answer this question, Alphonse van Worden, another blogger at the site, delves into the history of the Atlantic slave trade. If Dean argues that neoliberal capitalism produces a sublime fantasy around the institutions of state power, for Alphonse this resonates specifically with the genealogy of emancipatory politics (she brings up the transatlantic slave trade) as integral to understanding the legacy of private property rights.

She makes sure to explain the process of inversion whereby the initial calls for liberating slaves, which were initially a response to the traumatic encounter with the horrors of industrial capitalism, had been usurped by Capital itself in the form of liberal economic thought. For this inversion to be convincing, however, required not only “the revival of antique narratives and the fanstastic and the fabulous” but also the twisting of the political mythology from an image of freedom to that of bondage. This is why she says:

Its a head-exploding irony that the modern concept of ‘freedom’ upon which the idea of ‘free trade’ is built and which is the fairy in its shell was first embodied in sugar industry slaves, who were physically the ‘freedom’ of their proprietors.

Reading this exchange I immediately thought of a parallel discussion about the theory of labor power in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View, which was mentioned in the commentary (Alphonse also mentions Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution, which I did not know of but sounds fascinating from a comparativist perspective.)

I am quite enthralled by this bringing together of Zizekian musings on neoliberal capitalism and what seems to me as a more “British Cultural Marxist” look at the history of industrial capitalism. Although I am not fully convinced of Dean’s critique of Zizek (but then she’s read much more Zizek than I have, so who am I to say this), this move to ground a critique of neoliberalism in a nuanced historical materialist sort of analysis is promising. If anything, it blasts through the comforting mythology of neoliberal capitalism that we (or I should really say “I” to be less presumptuous) often wrap ourselves in by tuning into the emancipatory potential of one’s encouters with the acute economic and political inequalities that exist today. This engagement with the Real is for me at the heart of the ethnographic encounter — and perhaps is part of my answer to oneman’s discussion about the disciplinary “moral core” of anthropology.

This discussion also brings back some of the key theoretical issues in the anthropology of political economy (the work of Sidney Mintz immediately comes to mind). It also touches on the anthropology of law, which in rent years has been energized through a double-whammy of Giorgio Agamben‘s reappraisal of Foucault’s theory of biopolitics and the critique of neoliberalism from what I see as a more Anglo-American take on the politics of recognition.

Mead to Boas: “Will You Be Directly Disappointed in Me?”

During my exploration of del.icio.us bookmarks tagged “anthropology,” I came upon a site with the correspondence between student Margaret Mead and teacher Franz Boas during Mead’s research in Samoa (1925-6). This site, which was created to showcase more exchanges between the two anthropologists and complements the letters already published in the appendix of Derek Freeman’s book The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead.

Because I am unfamiliar with the details of the Mead-Freeman controversy (started by Freeman’s Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth), I was unable to truly appreciate the letters in terms of proving or disproving the validity of Mead’s findings. (For more on the Mead-Freeman controversy, see here and here, among others.)

Instead I read these letters as an exchange between a student and an advisor. In some of her missives Mead is quite honest in expressing her doubts about her fieldwork situation. The way she asks Boas for advice, I thought, was revealing of their close bond. In reading this exchange between a student and her teacher, I sensed some transference between the two, which might be a familiar feeling for those who has undergone the rigors of ethnographic fieldwork as a graduate student.

When I read this following passage in a letter Mead wrote to Boas (January 16, 1926), I thought to myself, “Hey, I’ve been there too!”:

But through it all, I have no idea whether I’m doing the right thing or not, or how valuable my results will be. It all weighs rather heavily on my mind. Is it worth the expenditure of so much money? Will you be directly disappointed in me?

Is Anthropology Global?

A wonderful thing about cyberspace is that it allows for greater exchange of ideas across national borders. And I know SM gets visitors from around the world.

Yet as Joi Ito notes on a post about international Internet protocols, there are some linguistic barriers so formidable that, as he puts it, makes George Bush’s confused phrase “the internets” make sense.

What about in the academic world of anthropology? We’ve all heard of the linguistic imperialism of the English language, and this term might aptly describe the academic world of anthropologists. I have noticed that scholars in non-anglophone settings are well-read in U.S. anthropology but U.S. anthropologists (myself included) aren’t as conversant in the traditions of other national anthropologies (except for the British and the French ones), sometimes even in the scholarship of their own fieldsite.

So do you think that there are anthropologies, not one single discpline of anthropology? Is the Internet is bringing these separate “worlds” of anthropologists closer? Or further driving them apart? And what’s the role of Savage Minds in all this?

These questions occurred to me when I came across a few writings in Japan Studies (and East Asian Studies in general) that look at the Japan field in the global academic scene.

The Japan-centered duo Masao Miyoshi (literature) and Harry Harootunian (history) have edited a volume titled Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies, which includes some articles that discuss the hegemony of the English language on the production of academic knowledge (see for example articles by James Fujii and Rey Chow).

Takami Kuwayama, in his recent book Native Anthropology: The Japanese Challenge to Western Academic Hegemony, promises to bring the insular world of Japanese anthropology into the international marketplace of ideas. On his website he writes:

Anthropology originated in the West, and it has mainly developed as a field that studies other cultures, many of which are radically different from the West. Among these cultures is Japan, a country that has fascinated generations of Western scholars for its exotic beauty. At least, this is how Japan has been regarded by many foreign visitors, both lay and professional. Japan, however, is not simply a tourist site or a field for scholarly investigations. It has, in fact, a long tradition of anthropology. With the second largest anthropological association in the world, Japan has produced, since the beginning of the 20th century, a large number of reputable scholars specializing in the study of foreign cultures. This situation, both inside and outside Japan, has brought about a curious result — the scarcity of Japanese anthropologists studying their own culture, which contrasts with the ever increasing volume of the anthropological literature on Japan produced by foreign, especially Anglophone, scholars who are not familiar enough with Japan’s academic culture.

This last sentence feels to me a bit incendiary and I don’t fully agree with his take on the history of anthropology, but he does point to the basic problem of the way national anthropologies are set apart by linguistic barriers. He hopes that his book will spark a dialogue between Japanese anthrologists and non-Japanese anthropologists.

I appreciate his effort to build a bridge across this linguistic divide, but isn’t this ultimately self-defeating in that by the sheer act of translation Japan’s “long tradition of anthropology” will be placed in a universal discourse and hence lose its singularity (that is, if it already posssessed it)? What does it exactly mean for there being different national traditions of anthrology?

Or are my concerns quite silly, and can be brushed off as silly self-reflexive musings of a blogger?

Ethnoblogs

I have spent the last few days preparing course syllabi for the fall semester and I was thought-experimenting about ways I can possibly incorporate blogs and other online technologies into the classroom.

Then I remembered that a few weeks ago over at Fieldnotes, Tad McIlwraith had wonderful things to say about Aaron Fox’s new ethnography Real Country: Music and Language in Working Class Culture (and also reported by Lorenz over at anthropologi). So I went over there to take a quick look.

Fox’s ethnography, which is a study of how country music expresses Texan working-class identity in a particular local community, is of interest to me because it is related to my dissertation topic: his treatment of class culture has made me think about a chapter of mine that deals with mineworkers in 1950s & 60s Japan who were into writing haiku poetry.

Yet besides his rich ethnography, I was also struck by Fox’s decision to “extend” his book into cyberspace. At his website for Real Country, he has all kinds of materials — interview transcripts, some real stellar photographs, audio files, and even a video clip — pretty much everything short of reproducing the book itself. I had so much fun going through his multimedia files, and I can see how students would too. It looks like he has not uploaded all the materials he has, but the site is very organized and easy to use.

What’s even more impressive is that Fox has begun a blog devoted to discussing the book with his readers. He wants the site to be a place “where students can interact with [him] and ask questions about the book.” Sure enough, there have already been a few students reading the book for class who have logged on and chatted with the author. Some of the discussions have been really enlightening. For example, when he was asked about his photographs, he talked about his passion for “working class documentary photography.”

So I am wondering if any of you august readers and bloggers of Savage Minds know of other online presentations of ethnographic materials? Or a list of ethnographic blogs already out there? Or better yet, your experience with such blogs in the classroom?

Thanks! I promise I’ll return the favor by compiling them into a list and posting it here.

Levisprout, the Anthropomon

After the rekindled debate over anthropology’s moral core, the erudite discussion about the politics of recognition, and the fascinating report on the genealogy of racial categories, here is a bit of fun.

Reported by Boing-boing, Tyler Bletsch has posted a new breed of pokemon-like characters called “Philosophomons.”

Among the pokemonized philosophers are Decartes, Nietzsche, Kant, Rousseau, and Thoreau.

These philosophomons may remind SM readers of the caricatures of animals as humans printed in our namesake book, Claude Levi-Strauss’s Savage Mind. In it he explores “the totemic logic of classification” and looks at how totems line up with social categories in a given community.

I wonder if the creator of these philosomons had in mind of trying to match philosophical temperament of the thinkers to the structural position of the creatures in the pokemon pantheon. Decartes is a bit slow in moving but very powerful like a Squirtle, and Aquinus, as Aquinix, I guess is huge, rocky, and earthen like an Onix.

Anyway these humanized animals (or the other way around?) bring Levi-Strauss to a discussion about individual names, in which he stretches the Saussurean theory of signs to its very limit: that proper names, even of individuals like Decartes or Nietzsche, has inherited the the way “primitive” classificatory systems work. His argument I think prefigures that of Barthes and Foucault who both in different ways ring the death knell of “the author.”

Here is what Levi-Strauss says:

Insofar as [individual names] derive from a paradigmatic set, proper names thus form the fringe of a general system of classification: they are both its extention and its limit. When they come on to the state the curtain rises for the last act of the logical performance. But the length of the play and the number of acts are a matter of the civilization, not of the language. The more or less ‘proper’ nature of names is not intrinsically determinable nor can it be discovered just by comparing them with the other words in the language. It depends on the point at which a society declares its work of classifying to be complete. To say that a name is perceived as a proper name is to say that it is assigned to a level beyond which no classification is requisite, not absolutely but within a determinate cultural system. Proper names always remain on the margins of classification. (215)

I had always been puzzled by this passage, because he seems to want to go in opposite directions. Persons (especially famous ones) are like totems in that both enjoy a special “beyond compare” status yet they have to be somehow classified so that the individual becomes “proper,” that is, to gain some sort of a proper-ness and become a sacred symbol. Yet this kind of having to want both ways has, at least for me, some frightening consequences: the only kind of society that “declares its work of classifying to be complete” would be a totalitarian one with a cultural-nationalist bent.

Perhaps this gloomy conclusion about the fallen state of our civilization is what Levi-Strauss was pointint to.

So in the spirit of bricolage and savage thinking, and in the hopes of bringing some light-heartedness to the structural weight of classificatory systems, here is my first anthropomon, called Levisprout.

Levisprout is like a Bellsprout, except instead of the vine whip he lashes his opponents with repeating narrative structures and binding incest taboos.

Levisprout, I choose you!

Levisprout

Now anyone have suggestions for other anthropomons?

Commodifying Girls, Harajuku Style

I wanted to avoid writing about Japan in my first post on Savage Minds (because I do that all the time at my own blog), but alas I am a creature of habit. But I hope I will be pardoned: I’m reporting about an anthropologist in a major print publication. And this will be sort of a riff on Kerim’s earlier mention of the clever parody on the African village planned at a German zoo.

Anne Allison, a Professor of Anthropology at Duke University, is mentioned in this week’s the New York Times Magazine in an article titled “Love. Angels. Product. Baby.” The piece is written by Rob Walker, who regularly writes for the magazine about consumerism and the money-centric culture of the capitalist society we live in. His column, “Consumed,” is in the “Way We Live Now” section of the NY Times Magazine).

(By the way, here’s another anthro connection: in this interview, Walker describes his endeavor as a “hybrid business-and-anthropology column.” Hmm…)

Walker writes that popstar Gwen Stefani‘s new album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby, and the entire marketing carnivalesque surrounding it (including an HP digicam branded as “Harajuku Lovers“), can be summed up by this neat phrase: “the commodification of commodification.”

Stefani’s latest album prominently figures “The Harajuku Girls” and is a paean to Harajuku, a section of Tokyo known as a neighborhood where hip youngsters come out dressing up in the strangest mixture of goth, tribal, haut-couture, and seemingly every other trend in the world history of fashion. Along with Shibuya, which has more love hotels and generally feels a bit more “adult,” Harajuku is the testing ground for Japanese marketers trying out their ware: they know that if a product catches on among the young hipsters who loiter there, it will sell well and perhaps conquer the world.

To Stefani, Harajuku Girls are hip. Why does she think this? Walker clues us in:

What is unusual is tha Stefani does not seem drawn to this subculture by ideology, rebelliousness or even a dance style. She seems drawn solely to a group’s apparent skill as shoppers. The song “Harajuku Girls” is a cross between a fashion-magazine trend story and an expositional number from a Broadway musical.

So Stefani, whose earlier persona in her band No Doubt was the punked up bad girl who bansheed around and shouted her head off to ska beats, is now all starry-eyed about shopping for the latest trends. Walker continues:

So what we really have here is not just a pop star endorsing a product but a pop star paying tribute to a consumer tribe. The real star behind the camera is not Stefani, but a specific breed of global hyper-consumer — as translated by Stefani. […] It is the commodification of commodification.

At this point Walker cites Anne Allison as a critical observer of the way Japanese subcultural icons have been swept up by the global mediascape (she examines, for example, Pokémon, in an article in this book), and asks a loaded question: “But […] does that mean that Japan has a real currency now? Or is it just a cool brand?”

Walker’s article is insightful in many ways. But I have a few problem with his interpretation of the Harajuku Girls.

For one, I don’t think Walker addresses the fact that these girls are represented in an exploitatively orientalist manner. When Stefani came out with the Harajuku Girls back in April, the blogosphere was flooded with feminist and Asian-American critiques of how these four dolled up cyber-ghetto-geisha girls have become a harem-like accessory piece of a white girl (much of this criticism launched by a Salon article by MiHi Ahn and reproduced here by Howard French). The poster up top is a photoshopped expression of this critical perspective.

Yet there is another set of stereotypes being evoked here by Stefani, which has to do with Japan as somehow beyond the present, without history, and self-absorbingly capitalist in some techno-utopian state of bliss. This kind of thinking has its roots in Alexandre Kojève‘s oft-noted declaration that Japan is a post-historical society (retracted I think later in his life) and Roland Barthes‘s otherwise great masterpiece, The Empire of the Sign. (I won’t go into details here, and I know I’m reaching a bit if I claim that the following also applies to the Harajuku Girls, but this line of thinking also resonates with 1. Japan’s wartime fascist ideology, which cast Japan as already beyond the West and” post-modern”, and 2. the contemporary triumphalism of neoliberal economics as in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of the History.)

A few years back Japanese critic Toshiya Ueno, writing about Japanimation, called the representation of a technologically utopic Japan as “Techno-orientalism.” In the case of the Harajuku Girls, some “consumer-orientalism” may be at work: a representation of a nation and its people as serious shopaholics to the point where girls would be willing to “whore up.”

Walker, whose sole criterion for judging good products seems to be “about figuring how to remake a subcultural style into something salable on a mass scale” (from the NYT Mag article), joins Stefani and her marketing team in celebrating this “commodification of commodification.” He understands that commodification involves not only buying (such as the act of girls accessorizing) but also selling. Yet he seems unfazed about what it is that they’re actually selling.

Walter Benjamin, in “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” writes of the prostitute as a figure of pure commodity: “a saleswoman and wares in one” (Reflections, p.157). It is difficult for me to not see these Harajuku girls as a similar figure of the prostitute as commodity, one that mixes racism, sexism, and the technologies of consumption into one bold entertainment package.

Now whenever a blogger debunks exploitative images in mass media, someone has to make a comment that is a variation of the following: “this is only a video/movie/pop song, so don’t take it so seriously.” To this I reply: I am not the one who might take this seriously, but rather the little boys and girls watching Stefani videos and taking in all this stereotyping as reality.

I’m usually not one for identity politics. But the Harakuju Girls is just a bit too over the top for me. So what do y’all think, am I just over-reacting?