Thursday, December 4, 2014

Men Among the Ruins: The Death of Normativity, Otaku, and Male Power Groups - Part Three & Conclusion

Part One
Part Two

History’s Unmarked Grave – Divergent Responses to the End of Normativity

Database Animals: MRAs vs. Otaku

I have previously mentioned the work of Azuma as a major influence, and I still believe that it provides the most accurate model for the development of the otaku subculture in Japan. Azuma traces the development and change of consumer tastes in narratives from modern realism based in a Grand Narrative (normativity), to hybrid fictional Grand Narratives which provided a replacement for the Grand Narratives lost in society as a whole, to complete postmodern rejection of Grand Narratives in favor of a “database” of affective elements with no Grand Narrative at all.
Much of Azuma’s model cannot be applied to Western MRAs, if only because the historical turning points he uses to define the era shifts do not hold much weight outside of Japan. The 1970 Red Army Incident, the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attacks, the end of Evangelion; these are not turning points in the lives of our Western MRAs.

Although some of Azuma’s historical signposts are international in nature (such as the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall), they have different implications for different societies. The fall of the Berlin Wall may have been an alienating, normativity-destabilizing event for Socialists but it was a normativity-strengthening event for Capitalists, a concrete demonstration that “we are right and they are wrong.” 

Azuma himself says that the fall of the Berlin Wall was not as important in Japan as the Aum Shinrikyo attacks. Similarly, while the fallout of WWII shook the underpinnings of Japanese normativity, it tended to reinforce the inherent “rightness” of Americanism for Americans.
To get to the point, both otaku and Western men experienced the death of a post-sittlichkeit normativity, but they experienced it in very different times and in very different ways. For otaku, it was the collapse of the fictional narrative as shown in the 1995 end of Evangelion. An entire generation experienced “Eva Shock” as director Hideaki Anno’s narrative normativity collapsed around them.

However, Japanese narrative normativity had already been decoupled from actual historicity. The end of WWII, the collapse of the 1980s bubble economy, the loss of lifetime employment and the death of the middle class had already reduced otaku narrative to clichéd apings of history. Narratives such as Gundam were not meant to be commentaries on “the real world” so much as pastiches for pleasurable consumption.

By focusing in on the technical details of fictional giant robots and the timeline of the “Universal Century,” otaku were able to assuage their feelings of alienation from “real” society by engaging in a fictional world which still held a sense of normativity. Evangelion merely tipped over a fictional edifice which was already rotten and on the verge of collapse.
Western “nice guys” started out with a fictional normativity (the Monomyth) which still had some semblance of reality. Although Western society saw a similar shaking of normativity in the 1960s and 70s, its effects were not nearly as destabilizing as events in Japan.

America in particular was still driven by an evangelion of progress and free markets, which strengthened normativity in the 1980s with the return of normative narratives – the fight against the “Evil Empire.” While Japan’s economy plummeted in the 1990s, America’s took off. Our narratives were proven right, not wrong.

While Western normativity (particularly American normativity) has weathered history better than Japanese normativity, it seems that no culture can fend off the creeping advance of alienation forever. The long survival of Monomyth-esque normativity, with its emphasis on moral virtue and the triumph of good (nice guys) over evil (jerks) makes it particularly painful for Western men because it is at odds with the sexual revolution. Men who attempt to cling to traditional morality by clinging to traditional gender roles are left exhausted, depressed, and desperate for meaning.

This is the main point of divergence between otaku and MRAs. While otaku have largely moved beyond the need for traditional normativity and Grand Narratives (though there are right-wing elements within otaku circles), MRAs insist on developing alternate models to replace the old.

Ex-nice guys have not continued to the next stage of history, in which mutual recognition becomes the basis for a new sittlichkeit, they have instead developed new Grand Narratives which keep the Other at a distance. PUAs embrace a new social contract which maintains women as objects, MRAs divide the world into “us” and “them,” and the fully alienated who have lost all normative compass lash out with threats of death and rape like the wounded animals they are.
It is perhaps no coincidence that these tendencies are so prevalent in Western fandom, the equivalents of Japanese otaku. From complaints about “fake geek girls” who do not properly conform to male fan normativity to internet crusades against female video game critics, male geek culture is a breeding ground for male alienation.

Like their Japanese predecessors, Western male fans have retreated into the fortress of geek culture and are defending its peculiar normative institutions to the death. For these men, fictional worlds are the last place where men are still active agents and women are still objects, where the hero still gets the girl and the villains still get their comeuppance.

Engaging in prophecy is always a crapshoot, but I feel justified in thinking that an Eva Shock equivalent is coming to the West. The rotten edifice of Western male-driven geek culture normativity cannot stand forever. It is teetering, and headed for the inevitable crash. I do not wish to downplay the negative effects of Gamergate, but it looks very much like The Last Stand of the Monomyth. The very extremes to which these MRAs have resorted, their death threats and organized terrorist actions, show the extent to which they have been driven against the wall. The point is not that we can sit back and let history take its course, the point is that we be confident in standing against the agents of a discredited normativity.

As for MRAs and so on outside of geek culture, they have even less of a supporting edifice. “Nice Guys” are the products of a transitional age, and once the transition is complete (or more advanced), there will be no source to spawn them. When the pool of alienated “nice guys” dries up, so will the candidate pool of potential MRAs and PUAs. The male-entitlement crowd, like the poor, will always be with us, but their days as a culturally relevant force are numbered.


To be honest, I don’t really have much left to say, other than a few words of caution. First, this is perhaps the least academic paper I have ever written (appropriate, since I am not currently in academia). Tracking down and critically analyzing, say, a particular “nice guy” rant or MRA webpage frankly seemed like more effort than it was worth for the current moment. My goal was not to absolutely demonstrate the rightness of my interpretation, but to build a tentative infrastructure for future analysis. I have painted with a very broad brush, caveat lector.

Second, this paper was written as part of a much longer ongoing effort to test the applicability of Azuma’s model outside of Japanese contexts. I have retread a lot of ground, feeling out the space ahead of me carefully before moving forward. I am still figuring out what I’m doing and how to do it, so please pardon the mess.

Third, for all of the respect I have for Azuma, I approach his model from a less Kojevian and more Hegelian angle. The biggest difference, as mentioned, is in the definition of modernity. Azuma (and Kojeve) see the modern as still having normativity; for Hegel the modern is defined by the death of normativity. If anything, what Azuma labels as “modern” should be labeled either “pre-modern” or “pre-modern to modern transitional.”

However, I would agree that contemporary otaku culture is legitimately post-modern, in that moe elements provide a post-enlightenment normative structure which is not subject to alienation. While otaku may still suffer alienation in reference to society as a whole, they do not suffer it within their mutually recognized normative subculture. If anything, their powerful emotional responses to narratives constructed within this mutual framework demonstrate just how de-alienated otaku culture has become.

Last, I would encourage readers not to paint with these broad strokes when dealing with individual MRAs. The main shortcomings of Hegelian criticism manifest themselves when it is over-applied. Just as Newtonian physics break down when applied to sub-atomic particles, broad Hegelian eras can break down when applied to individuals. Transitions between eras are not total “once and for all” events but rather ebbs and flows in a very gradual process. History may have “ended” in 1806 at the Battle of Jena, but not everyone has gotten the memo.

It is under this last point that I understand the Gamergate crowd. As culture becomes more modern and less central, we will all start to move through history at different speeds. It is easier than ever for a subculture bubble to remove itself from society and evolve separately. Social Justice Warriors and Men’s Rights Activists exist in the same time and place, but not in the same Era of History. The current struggle is like two previously separate tectonic plates crashing together.

This is, perhaps, why both sides cast themselves as victims. Some great external force has shaken their way of life. Neither side asked for this conflict, but conflict is inevitable as the two plates grind into each other and shake the people living on them.

Sometimes the mere existence of other normative frameworks is enough to drive humans to threaten, persecute, and even murder each other. We have seen this before. We will see it again. The goal is to truly understand what is happening, why it is happening, and to reconcile with each other – not to defeat the “Other.”


  1. Does this mean we'll soon be seeing the western equivalents of soushoku danshi (herbivore men), dating simulator games, full-body pillows with anime girls on them, and all the other hallmarks of "post-normativity" otaku culture?

    1. I've been mulling this question over in my head, and I think the critical phrase is "western equivalents." Will we see the exact same thing? Well, only among western otaku who share the same network of database elements. I've spent enough time as a vendor on the convention circuit to know that a good number of westerners consume these exact same products for very similar reasons. The Japan Brand program is certainly predicated on the assumption that these cultural products have international appeal.

      But I don't think we'll see a sudden boom of herbivore men, dating sims, and dakimakura in the West so much as an increase in Database-style consumption. Less distinction between traditionally narrative goods (books, movies, comics) and traditionally non-narrative good (t-shirts, mugs, pillows). We see something of this in meme/rage face culture; images which carry certain emotional meanings regardless of what context/narrative they are put into.

      Good question! I'm going to keep thinking about this.

    2. I think I see what you're getting at... Maybe it's because I feel that "geek culture becoming more like otaku culture" and "geek culture becoming less MRA-friendly" seem contradictory for me. The post-normativity, post-"Eva Shock" otaku culture appears to have become more insular, more exclusive, more fetishized and focused on sexist objectification in the past decade. But in the west, geek culture is doing its darnedest to become more inclusive and egalitarian (much to the chagrin of the old guard of straight white males), with a de-emphasis on (or outright removal of) objectifying and fetishizing female characters, as if they're seeing what happened in Japan as a cautionary tale. Modern otaku culture is what geek culture would be like if the #Gamergate crowd won. At least in my opinion.

    3. I will admit that I am somewhat out on a limb in saying that post-normative = egalitarian. The argument is that since western male power groups subscribe to normative ideologies, the death of normativity to would undermine their power. In other words, this is not a "Japan is better than everyone else" argument.

      At the same time, I do think that Japanese otaku culture looks a lot less misogynistic when you keep the 2次元 aspect in mind. The whole point of the 2D complex is that the object of desire is not real women. I believe the phrase goes "3D pig disgusting." What is desired is a simulacra of moe elements, not power over flesh-and-blood women. Violence or hatred toward real women for not conforming to an ideal image doesn't make sense when the ideal image is not intended for real women.

      I think you see more actual misogyny in ヲタクculture (idol fans) because the object of desire is flesh-and-blood women. AKB48 fans are terrifying. Other than idol fan culture, I'm not aware of any gamergate/fake geek girl scandals in Japanese otaku culture. If anything, animosity between older otaku and moe fans seems to be the main divide. So sure, those love pillows are squicky, but actual violence towards women seems to be limited to isolated individuals instead of a systematic culture.

      Not that Japan itself does not have a serious endemic misogyny issue. But in my experience with otasong raves and so on, Japanese otaku stack up pretty well against western gamers in the acting like decent human beings category. Circumstantial evidence for sure, but I don't see the same bunker mentality.

      Also, Merry Christmas or equivalent!