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Aca-Fan Service: Strategies of Scholarly Seduction in GitS:SAC and Ergo Proxy

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Oct. 13th, 2013 | 10:08 am
location: home

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the always-enjoyable SGMS/Mechademia conference on Japanese popular culture in Minneapolis. (Hi to everyone who was also there!) I heard that some people on Twitter were interested my presentation, so I decided to post it here. (Hi Twitter folks, if you've made it here!) Then work and life jumped up in my face yelling "Me, me! Look at me! SO important! Must do now!" And the days passed, and...

At any rate, better late than never! Text below the cut, and you can also see the slides here: Trust me, it makes more sense with the slides.




[Slide 1] Hello! For this year’s conference on Fanthropologies, I’d like to talk about, well, us, fans and scholars of anime! In the past couple of years, I’ve become really interested in how we speak differently about anime depending on whether we’re in academic or fan mode. I don’t know about you, but when I’m just chatting with someone about an anime I love, usually I have its aesthetic and emotional appeal in mind first, before its ideology or intellectual appeal. I focus on the scenes that had the most visceral impact, or things I think the person I’m talking to will connect with. Ask me about the original Ghost in the Shell film in conversation, and eventually [Slide 2] I’ll end up rhapsodizing about the lyrical scene where Major Kusanagi drifts through a rainy cityscape to Kawai Kenji’s haunting vocal score.

But, ask me about Stand Alone Complex during an academic presentation, and you’re not as likely to hear how I laughed and cried over the antics of the Tachikoma robots. Oh no, I come to an academic presentation armed. I have my bibliography at hand and an arsenal of terms from my discipline to lend authority to my personal passion. So, even though we individuals have all kinds of reactions to anime within us –emotional, physical, intellectual, social-- we frame our experiences differently depending on whether we speak as fans or academics. In many cases we have to change our colours depending on context. There’s no way you could present at a mainstream conference with a paper on how “I like Ergo Proxy because I think the main character is super-hot!” [Slide 3] As Matt Hills reminds us, “academia is bounded by its own imagined subjectivity,” in which “the ‘good subject’ of the ‘duly informed’ academic is a resolutely rational subject devoted to argumentation and persuasion” (3) --not a crazy otaku who falls in love with cartoon characters! But on the flip side, when we scholarly types –including students, profs, independent scholars, and smart, avid readers in any field -- go out to the local anime convention or get into a debate online, we end up getting picked on by fanboys for “overthinking” cartoons (especially if you’re a woman criticizing gender roles in anime.) The academic fan –or “aca-fan” in Hills’ term– speaks at least two languages, and must know when to use each strategically.

This duality comes to the fore in shows like Stand Alone Complex and Ergo Proxy that have cross-over appeal among scholars and fans. The Ghost in the Shell franchise is a canonical mainstay of anime scholarship in English, in part because its links with Western cyberpunk make it a great cross-cultural case study. Ergo Proxy, a relatively new series by SAC screenwriter Dai Sato, was likewise reviewed in Mechademia 4 as a stand-out example of intertextuality for its references to cyberpunk and the Bible. The intertextual references in these shows make them attractive to people with a more intellectual approach to anime. Meanwhile, their sexy main characters in skimpy outfits appeal to the viewers’ otaku side. And it’s no coincidence that we find intertexual references and attractive characters side-by-side as fan service. I argue that the references to theoretical and philosophical texts in these shows are basically “aca-fan service,” a specialized kind of fan service that references not just texts, but modes of interpretation. Where regular fan service offers a glimpse of something that allures viewers on a physical and emotional level, Stand Alone Complex and Ergo Proxy use glancing references to the “High Theory” texts that humanities scholars use to make meaning, in order to seduce more intellectually-oriented viewers. I don’t think Sato-san was cackling “I’ll give those academics something to talk about!” with every keystroke –I’m not that self-centred! But the nature of his allusions suggest that his target audience includes people who will get the theory jokes: namely, the double-voiced “aca-fan.” [Slide 4] Today, I’ll explore this “aca-fan service” by expanding on its three key elements: intertextuality, fan service, and the aca-fan.

So, when I was planning this paper I asked my fellow aca-fans for feedback on my blog, and one of the first problems they raised was: what’s the difference between aca-fan service and any other allusion –like the references to science fiction literature in Neon Genesis Evangelion? Eva is a great example of a show that uses all kinds of references to religion, mythology, philosophy, and literature to build its world. But the spiritual and literary references, I would argue, mostly fall under the time-honored tradition of allusion. They reference other works in order to bolster the themes and struggles experienced by the characters within the show. They are outsides sources that are incorporated into the text by the author to create a certain worldview.

Intertextuality, on the other hand, is a postmodern strategy that works mainly on meta-textual level. An intertextual reference refers to something outside the show, sometimes in a way that supports the show’s narrative directly, but often in a way that’s almost random or gratuitous. For instance, in Ergo Proxy, the human characters who live in the post-apocalyptic domed city of Romdo have android “Entourages” or aides, who for some reason are all named after famous theorists or philosophers: Kristeva, Deleuze, and Guattari work for secondary characters, while Derrida and Lacan are among four statues who rule over the city in place of the Regent. Do any of these Entourages actually reflect the works of their namesakes? Not really! But they do have a particular impact for an audience that recognizes the names. They set aca-fans searching for reflections of those philosophies in the work, leading them both into and out of the text.
[Slide 5] This “into and out of” movement is a key feature of intertextuality. According to Brian Ott and Cameron Walter, intertextuality is a term that describes both shows that make references to other texts and an interpretive practice where audiences actively make meaning by making associations. In theory-speak, intertextuality is a process of both encoding and decoding information. [Slide 6] This process happens through three main intertextual strategies: parodic allusion, creative appropriation, and self-reflexive reference.

Parodic allusion is different from classical literary parodies. In literature written before the 20th century, the goal of a parody was generally to take one subject –like bourgeois greed in Jonathan Swift’s parodic essay “A Modest Proposal”—and exaggerate or caricature it. Postmodern parodic allusion is not so focused. Instead, there are lots of little references scattered through a work –like the philosophers in Ergo Proxy, or the cut-away scenes in Family Guy. Parodic allusion “seeks to amuse through juxtaposition—a goal that is enhanced by the reader's recognition of the parodic gesture. The audience is transformed into the site of critical commentary,” rather than commentary being given by the author. The more references a viewer gets, the more accomplished and accepted they are within a community of fans. From this we get social forums like fandom wikis where people demonstrate their shared knowledge.

The second kind of intertextuality, creative appropriation takes this one step farther, since here creators and audiences take actual scenes or images directly from the original work and incorporate them into a new work, as we see in anime music videos or AMVs. Finally, self-reflexive reference, as the name suggests, are references that depend on the audience’s “specific knowledge of the text’s production history, the character’s previous credits, or popular reviews.” Only hardcore fans –or, crucially, animation scholars-- will get these references, because they care enough to keep track. [Slide 6 point 2] Overall, intertextuality “allow[s] viewers to exercise specialized knowledge and to mark their membership in particular cultures” (440).

This is the kind of intertextuality used in aca-fan service. As I define it, aca-fan service is not just a reference to another film or book or anime, it is a reference to the way anime is interpreted. It makes parodic allusions to the very theoretical texts that are used to explain anime as a mode of visual communication and cultural connection. In Ergo Proxy, including key philosophical names and terms invites interpretation through the lens of theory and philosophy –though I admit, a lot of the references don’t really lead anywhere. In Stand Alone Complex, aca-fan service is more directly integrated, as characters talk about theoretical concepts that can practically be used to interpret the show.

For instance, in episode 15, Machines Desirantes the Tachikoma are debating their relationship to humans, and one of them says to the others, “stop for a moment and ask yourselves why our own bodies, without organs, aren’t created in the humans’ image.” That phrase “Bodies without Organs” is a term used by Deleuze and Guattari for the flows and blockages of desire. The Tachikoma use it to describe their own growing intentionality, despite their non-human forms, which works. And just in case the phrase wasn’t enough of a clue-in, [Slide 7] we also see the Tachikoma who used it reading Anti-Oedipus, the book where these terms were introduced. I have to admit, this was my userpic online the whole time I was doing my PhD comprehensive exams, and my geeky grad student friends thought it was funny, even if no one else had a clue what it was. This scene is a great example of aca-fan service, in that it lets viewers exercise their specialized knowledge and mark their membership in two particular cultures: the cultures of scholarship and of anime fandom. It lets aca-fans say: “Hey, I speak both these languages –and its fun when they meet!”

That said, when most people think of fan-service, obscure philosophy references are not the first thing that come to mind. No, usually fan service means things like this [Slide 8] –the gratuitous underwear of anime! Which leads to another great mystery of Ghost in the Shell: namely, Kusanagi, who told you this counts as office-wear?! I don’t care if you’re a cyborg, a strapless bathing-suit just isn’t practical, and all the men in the show wear reasonable clothes! Like pants! Ahem, sorry for the rant. My point is that the real reason for the Major’s skimpy outfit has nothing to do with the logical diegesis of the show. Like intertextuality, it’s found in the fan audience –and in this case, the animators’ anticipation of male otaku desires.

[Slide 9] According to Keith Russell’s article “The Glimpse and Fan Service: New Media, New Aesthetics,” fan service can be defined as “the random and gratuitous display of a series of anticipated gestures common in Manga and Anime. These gestures include such things as panty shots, leg spreads, and glimpses of breasts” (107). It’s random because you generally don’t know at what point in an episode it is coming, and gratuitous because it contributes nothing to the narrative, so that the show could easily continue without it and still be perfectly understandable. The purpose of fan service is not to provide narrative information, but to give the fan viewer a “glimpse” of a “free, and uncontested, visual space” (108) where pleasure isn’t foreclosed by social strictures on looking.

Now, I think there are points where this idea could be nuanced and extended, and I’ll come back to those. But I like the idea that fan-service is a glimpse of something alluring that leads to a greater engagement with the sensory world, in the same way that parodic allusion is a glancing reference that the audience teases out together. It works well with Ott and Walter’s theory of intertextuality, where little references let fans get a grip on the larger postmodern social world. In their words, [Slide 10] “While simply living in a particular physical place may no longer furnish the sense of community and self that it once did, the media provide resources for building coherent, if mutable, identities” (440). In a similar way, the alluring glimpses of fan service could be said to draw viewers into a greater sense of complicity with one another, in enjoying a similar pleasure and connecting emotionally with the character they view.

Now, in an aca-fan program like Ergo Proxy, physical fan-service is also taken to another level, the level of interpretation. Let’s take a look at a key scene from the very first episode of the series for an example. In this episode, we’ve met Re-l, a sort of security agent in the Romdo dome. She’s been hunting robots who are infected with the “Cogito Virus” which causes them to become sentient and run amuck. But at the same time, she senses she’s being hunted by something else –a mysterious being called a Proxy. Here’s her first encounter with the Proxy.

[Episode 1, 22:18-23:56]

So, surprise, surprise, our heroine is attacked in her underwear just as she’s about to get in the shower! Narratively, was that really necessary? No; she could’ve been making dinner or setting down her keys. But on a visceral level, just like in Hitchcock’s Psycho, the scene has a much greater impact if she’s unarmed and vulnerable. Unlike Psycho, the point here isn’t that she’s a victim who dies; it’s that she’s the recipient of some strange communication, an affective message that brings both to tears. This scene becomes a literal touchstone throughout the series; Re-L will remember it and touch her lips with a pensive look, trying to figure out the message. The physical discomfort of the scene –or maybe the erotic thrill of it, depending on your tastes—creates a memorable emotional emphasis, signaling that there’s something important we don’t know yet. What seems gratuitous holds a glimpse of meaning, a tease, a hook. In that way, it works as a more nuanced form of fan service that encourages the act of interpretation.

That said, I find it problematic to frame fan-service as a free and uncontested visual space. Russell’s article, like many of his sources, assumes a male heterosexual viewer, and then makes generalized observations about the liberation of “our visual being,” without recognizing the gendered power dynamics of looking. He quotes Laura Mulvey’s ground-breaking feminist study of the male gaze just far enough to get the idea of looking as a fetishistic source of visual pleasure, but does not address Mulvey’s critique of the way men are granted greater license and privilege to look actively than women. The stated intention in his short piece is to investigate the aesthetics of fan service “Without agreeing to, or arguing about, the stereotypical [gendered] aspects of glancing and gazing” (106). However, I would argue that the gendered dynamics of looking are something we need to concern ourselves with. Fan service, after all, is still part of a gender-biased media ecology that prefers sexualized girl-objects. It’s very much a structured visual space, shot through with the same inequalities as real world. Stand Alone Complex and Ergo Proxy may feature strong, active female characters, and sure, men and women can take pleasure out of seeing these woman, clothed or naked. But we need to keep in mind that not everyone looks the same way or has the same reaction to fan service as the assumed male otaku.

A more realistic position, as I’ve been arguing today, is that one person can have multiple and conflicting reactions to fan-service depending on their context and how they need to frame their speech. This is particularly true of aca-fans, who may be attracted to a series or character on an emotional or physical level, but feel it’s not safe or appropriate to express that in some settings. This is where aca-fan service gives intellectual anime fans a safe way out, a way to say “No, look, this is a good object of fandom. We’re learning something here, and this quote from Lacan proves it!” I call this “scholarly seduction,” a tactic that’s absolutely engrained in academic writing on anime, and fan studies generally. But often, in focusing so heavily on the Lacanian or even Deleuzian theory presented in anime, scholars miss the chance to consider alternatives to the dominant theories of sexuality. [Slide 11] This is the danger that arises when aca-fans become too invested in the theoretical structures that anime dangle in front of our noses. Intertextual references and intellectually-justified fan service risk becoming proxies or stand-ins that mask our personal motivations for studying anime –motivations that are also worthy of being talked about, rather than hidden away.

So, what’s my alternative? Well, in the end, I still don’t feel like I can stand up here and just say, “I like Ergo Proxy because I think the main characters are super-hot.” But I can suggest that we actually address the gap between our fannish passions, the aesthetic and emotional investments that drive us, and the academic discourse we’re building like a fortress around them. Matt Hills openly opposes the “moral dualisms” of fan studies which rely on identifying “‘good’ and ‘bad’ instances of popular culture” and dividing fans into acceptable categories of “resistant” or “complicit” readers (Hills 2002, xii). That’s a start.

I’d also recommend that we draw on cyberfeminist theorists like Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles, who focus on situated knowledges, or, recognizing the importance of our own positioning instead of depending on universal theories. [Slide 12] This means looking back at ourselves as examples of the kinds of fan we study. Is there any part of your fan experience that you have to censor as shameful or TMI in academia –like maybe your fan-fiction or your collection of body-pillows? Do you use theory as a proxy to express (or mask) your emotional investments in anime? And is there any way that you do manage to speak in different voices at once? That many-layered voice is what I’ve tried to find by presenting on aca-fan service with my Tachikoma shadow girls. I’d love to hear some feedback from people with different experiences as I develop this idea more. So please feel free to chat with me any time at Mechademia, or drop me an email. Thanks!

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Comments {1}

Rax E. Dillon

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from: rax
date: Oct. 15th, 2013 04:23 pm (UTC)
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I find the idea of "acafan service" really interesting, and I'm pretty sure I've seen it places other than anime. It's a useful way to think about name-dropping in multiple contexts and your discussion of what does and does not constitute legitimate engagement resonates with other things I've been thinking about. Thank you!

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