Wednesday, January 21, 2015

[DC003] Azuma Vs. Hegel: Defining History

Previous: [DC002] What is DatabaseConsumption (and Where Does it Come From)?

            Azuma Hiroki's Database Consumption Model is based in large part on Hegel's three-stage model of historical development, but there are some serious discrepancies between Hegel’s view of history and Azuma’s. While some of these discrepancies are caused by Azuma’s reliance on Alexandre Kojève’s description of Hegel (snobbism, animalism), the most glaring issue for me is Azuma’s definition of Modernity.
            Hegel's historical model describes the Pre-Enlightenment, Modern, and Post-Modern stages, but Azuma looks only at the decline of Modernity and the gradual rise of Postmodernity. This is fine in itself, but many of the characteristics of Azuma’s Modern period bear a stronger resemblance to Hegel’s Pre-Enlightenment period. 
            For Hegel, the Modern is a period of Alienation, in which all Grand Narratives (although Hegel does not use the exact term “Grand Narrative”) are considered arbitrary and subjective. So the basis of Azuma’s Modern period, Grand Narratives, are by definition part of Hegel’s Pre-modern period.
            Azuma’s primary examples of Age of Reason Grand Narratives are Communism and Pre-War Japanese Society. He claims that these Grand Narratives attempt to explain all phenomena according to a single perspective, a single ‘grand unified theory of everything.’ Consumers in Azuma's supposedly Modern “Era of Reason” are members of a sittlichkeit community, which recognizes social laws as part of the underlying architecture of the universe - a Grand Narrative.  Human individuals recognize each other by these laws, and do not suffer alienation.

            Now, this sittlichkeit worldview does not apply perfectly to more recent Grand Narratives, such as Stalinism.  Azuma himself points this out on his section on cynicism by citing Slavoj Žižek:

            “To exemplify this connection (the relationship between Hegelian philosophy and Lacanian philosophy) let us refer to Stalinism - more specifically, to its obsessive insistence that whatever the cost we must maintain the appearance: we know that behind the scenes there are wild factional struggles going on; nevertheless we must keep at any price the appearance of Party unity; nobody really believes in the ruling ideology, every individual preserves a cynical distance from it and everybody knows that nobody believes in it; but still, the appearance is to be maintained at any price that people are enthusiastically building socialism, supporting the party, and so on...” (quoted in Azuma 70).

            This excerpt, written in 1989, shows the hybrid nature of Communism towards the end of the Soviet Union.  It is a (Hegelian) Modern, alienated worldview masquerading as a (Hegelian) sittlichkeit Grand Narrative. The ideology of the Party claims to be a unified theory of everything, and yet the Party itself does not believe its ideology.

            This complicates Azuma's usage of the 1970 Red Army incident as a guidepost to the end of pure Modernism in Japan.  Were the members of the Red Army alienated or un-alienated?  Did they truly believe in Communism as an all-encompassing worldview or were they alienated and cynical?  If they truly believed in it as an all-encompassing worldview, then they would be better categorized according to Hegel's Pre-Enlightenment Era.  If they were alienated and cynical, then they would be better categorized according to Hegel's Modern Era and their Stalinism as a fictional hybrid Grand Narrative.

            That’s just one example, but no matter which “Modern” Grand Narrative we look at, we are in essence left with two options:

            1). Azuma’s Age of Reason is indeed Modern in the Hegelian sense, but its Grand Narratives were not truly sittlichkeit worldviews. They were held cynically as Stalinism was for Žižek. World War II certainly had a destabilizing effect on Japanese society, although the Reconstruction seems to have replaced Nationalism with Mass Middle Class corporate ideology. While the Mass Middle Class was eventually wiped out with the collapse of the Bubble economy, it still provided Japan with a few decades of social normativity.

            2). Azuma’s Age of Reason is not Modern in the Hegelian sense because alienation has not yet occurred. For whatever reason, the spread of Western sciences grounded in the Enlightenment did not cause the same trend toward alienation. Once again, the Mass Middle Class ideology did provide Japanese society with a level of mass normativity up until the 1990s.

            I suppose we might also envision a third path.
Hegel describes the scene in Antigone as the “bubbling” of Modernity in Sophocles’ mind. By posing the question of what happens when two eternal laws conflict (in this case, the law of the polis and the law of the family), Sophocles calls the concept of the eternal law into question. Modern cynicism is bubbling up, presaging the alienation which is to come.

            It is possible that Azuma’s Age of Reason is subject to a similar form of “bubbling.” Alienation does not hit all segments of society simultaneously. It takes time for Enlightenment ideals to filter down to the masses. We might posit that a gradual Democratization of Alienation occurred in Japan as improved education and communication technology gradually uprooted old worldviews and broke down
communities.[i] The upper classes were Modern and Alienated, while the lower classes were Pre-Modern and Un-Alienated.

            Now, this may seem like needless nit-picking – and it kind of is. Azuma is not writing for Hegelian specialists, so the use of the
term “Modern” more in accordance with its popular usage of “Industrial” could be justified. Japan was indisputably Industrial in the Age of Reason, and Industrialism is a sort of all-encompassing worldview of its own.

But it troubles me when an author who explicitly claims to be using Hegel ignores the role of sittlichkeit
in the historical process. The whole point of Hegel’s Pre-Enlightenment period is that Alienation has not yet occurred. The whole point of Hegel’s Modern period is that Alienation has occurred because of the Enlightenment. And the whole point of the Post-Modern period is that Science has been rationally reconciled to sittlichkeit. This is literally the whole point of Hegel’s historical process; its engine and its ends.

            Why is the Moral Valet wrong? Why is the mechanism of forgiveness so important? Why can concepts drop in and out of the Bacchanalian Revel without rendering the whole dance pointless? How can we resolve the tension between the Hero’s handlug and tat – between our intended actions and their actual results? Hegel’s End of History is a society in which Faith and Reason are reconciled, where humans can create truly legitimate, mutually recognized meaning without the old master/slave dynamic. History does not simply end, it is fulfilled. It is overcome and improved.

            Maybe Azuma gets all of this and simply didn’t feel it fit the scope and theme of his topic. Or maybe I’m misreading Hegel. But Azuma’s Kojevian reading of what is at stake in the Post-Modern period leads to the conclusion that post-modern consumers are animalized ciphers with no inner life beyond 'the feels.' The whole point of the Database Consumption model should be that consumers and producers are building a non-alienated network of human meaning, not the fear that they are mere “cicadas in concert.”

            I do think it is a bit hasty to call otaku “unalienated” or fully Post-Modern in the Hegelian sense. The database of moe elements provides an un-alienated network of mutual recognition for otaku, but otaku still feel alienation towards society as a whole. The Grand Non-Narrative provided by moe elements is sub-cultural, not universal. It may provide a glimpse at what a Post-Modern system of meaning-making looks like, but it is not fully Post-Modern yet.

            The Database Model is an important step towards Hegelian Postmodernism, but it is still just a bubbling situated in an overall era of Modern Alienation. It shows that it is possible to move beyond alienated narratives, not that we have arrived at a new
sittlichkeit normativity. The feeling of moe, the power of emotional affect in otaku culture indicates to me that these narratives are consumed without alienation, without emotional distance.
            This is ultimately an argument between two Hegels: Kojève’s Hegel and my Hegel, with Azuma’s Kojève-Hegel lying somewhere in the middle. Kojève’s Hegel posits an End of History that is also an end to meaningful human activity. We will all be animals in concert or snobs clinging to meaningless norms from history. My Hegel posits a Fruition of History, a historical process that ends because its purpose has been achieved.

            I’m not going to argue that my Hegel is the “real” Hegel. But I do think that Azuma’s Kojève-Hegel is an amnesiac: a Hegel that has forgotten the bulk of The Phenomenology of Spirit, a Hegel with new definitions of Pre-Modern, Modern, and Post-Modern.

            In Part Two, we will look at how Azuma’s model stacks up against contemporary critics of otaku culture and contemporary Japan.

[i] Of course, that would conflict with Japan’s high literacy rate and mandatory education laws in the pre-WWII period. Someone better qualified than me should weigh in on this.

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