Sonntag, 10. Juni 2012

Thought for food: Grappling with sci-fi and postmodernism

Tatsumi, Takayuki: Full Metal Apache (2006, Duke University Press)

FMA cover I found myself more than a bit confused by this war of concepts under the direction of Japanese cultural critic guru Tatsumi Takayuki. With its subtitle Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America, I was hoping for either observations on the peculiar cultural exchange between the two nations in the case of 1980s and 90s (cyberpunk) fiction; or an analysis of the interlocking concepts of orientalism and occidentalism and their disappearance or fusion during/ after this time.

While the book's content is certainly closer to my second guess, the lasting impression is one of haziness. There are five parts, labeled Theory, History, Aesthetics, Performance and Represantation.

Each part includes one to several chapters, which mostly have a group of (science-) fictional works as their basis and see Tatsumi reach some kind of conclusion as to why these works are to be interpreted as a group. These chapters can be about the aesthetics of trash or the role of American war-narratives in the perspective of Japanese cyberpunk-classic Tetsuo. It's hard to pinpoint one direction really.

Tracing the line of Tatsumi's argumentation becomes a true challenge for anyone but the excellently prepared reader. You'll need to be well versed not only in concepts of cultural criticism but ideally also an avid consumer of the kinds of fiction that form the base material of this study. Drawing on an extensive range of cyberpunk and science fiction works in literature and cinema both from America and Japan, I doubt there is anyone more deeply involved in the material than Tatsumi. Combine that with his status as professor of English at Japan's most prestigious university Keio and an impressive catalog of publications, and you end up with little doubt about the author's competence.

Rather, I was sometimes under the impression that this competence and wealth of material backfired, leaving the reader to watch Tatsumi from afar, see him making leaps of logic rather than following on his heels. Just about any concept, true to the fashion of the postmodern critic, becomes modified with a hyper-, avant-, meta-, or post-; presupposing that the reader has a clear idea of the terms attached and ideally knows the source material at hand (though plot summaries are given).

Indeed, the easiest read in here is the inflammatory introduction by Larry McCaffery, though his invitation to the "pretty wild, high-speed ride over unfamiliar, aesthetically 'difficult' cultural terrain“ already states the danger of a "sense of cultural vertigo, disassociation, info-overload, and other symptoms of dis-orientation“. You can't say you haven't been warned.

However, Tatsumi's approach is not without its merits. There are all kinds of fascinating connections between works of fiction and socio-cultural circumstances to be discovered here, often self-consciously labeled 'coincidences' by the author. There is, for example, a chapter about the playwright Terayama Shuji and his clever infusion of bad taste-aesthetics by the way of theatre into the "advanced-capitalist conspiracy“ of the Seibu corporation, who reinvented the Tokyo district Shibuya in the 1980s as a kind of spectacle, a "reality studio". Many of the chapters deal with such deep readings of cultural texts, rather than following a red line of argument throughout the book. Indeed, Tatsumi is a master of deep reading. If he strikes oil or hard rock at the end of his excavations depends in part on the reader's ability and willingness to follow the often outrageous stretches of imagination and interpretation.

It's easy to criticize Tatsumi for overestimating the impact and the inner workings (even if assumed an unconscious impact) of the works he analyzes. But then again, he is a cutting edge cultural critic. He's not here to state the obvious, to map out once again William Gibson's fascination with Japan or the appropriation of anime aesthetics in Hollywood cinema. He's here to blow your mind. Just make sure you don't expect a coherent argumentation towards how exactly these Transactions in the title are to be mapped out or evaluated. This is postmodernism: nothing can be said for sure, all concepts and categories taken for granted before are now disintegrating. Making sense of this mess requires unusual means, and Full Metal Apache is a harsh, if worthwhile confrontation with them.

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