Out Like a Lamb: Day 13: Designing for Life

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Today I’d like to do something a bit different than before. Since today’s subject is so visual, I’ve decided to make this entry much more image-centric than usual. That will entail me acting as a guide through a gallery of some of my recent design and artworks. We’ll do a couple of them and see where we end up.

Just a moment before we do, though, I want to spend a paragraph just musing about my general approach to art and design as well as a few words about where I got started.182459_1813035811537_2753526_n

One night, about seven or eight years ago now, I had a strange dream that featured the ominous, indefinable object you see above. I quickly sketched it out in my drawing book to make sure I didn’t forget. Now, most if not all of the time before that, my drawing time was spent on maps of fantasy worlds I wanted to write about–and did in some cases. But here I had a powerful image, and I actually drew it out before using Apple Pages to create the vector graphic above. I am still not sure what that whole dream was about, but it produced something so indelible that I had to preserve it. From there, I learned how to use Pages’ shape tools and other graphic editing and page layout to make more sophisticated images.

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These two are some of my favourites. Throughout my undergraduate years, I actually refused to upgrade to any software, like Illustrator or even a cheaper Photoshop alternative and stuck to the tools I knew how to operate. After all, I was able to do some pretty cool things with the techniques I had learned, and it was only very gradually that I realized how limited they really were, especially in terms of efficiency. 392371_2986425665550_1887808499_n.jpg

I still haven’t acquired a copy of Illustrator or anything truly sophisticated, but I get by using software called Pixelmator to make posters, sometimes employing the help of InDesign for particularly thorny or complicated projects. I’ve focused most of my time on making radical political posters, some of which you might have seen around Toronto if you look carefully. On the other hand, I also have dedicated some time to more casual and selfish projects, like the three below. Now let’s get to that gallery tour!

 

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Now that you’ve had a tour of some of my development, seeing where my computer art has gone and where it might go, I’m pretty happy with the results. I’m still learning and shifting the way I do things as well as the kinds of work I like to do, but with the exception of a few pieces I don’t particularly like (and no longer have, unfortunately), it’s been a positive contribution to my life over the past several years.

Let’s see what the next three days of posts will be:

March 24: This entry will cover my academic interests. I’m going to focus mainly on chaos theory and work around embodiment, since I wouldn’t be able to cover all of my interests in one post. That is subject to change, but either way, it should be fun.

March 25: Another fun one, this time focusing on how I understand friendships and romantic relationships, especially through the frames of relationship anarchy and ethics. A complex topic, to be sure, but one I think I can bring a unique perspective to.

March 26: This one is more basic, just talking about how I’ve adjusted to city life and, previously, how I coped with living in small towns or isolated areas, i.e. not very well.

Soviet Daughter and the Potential of Graphic Histories

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Very briefly, I want to write about Julia Alekseyeva’s Soviet Daughter in the context of a growing body of graphic histories. Professional and aspiring historians can learn much from such accounts, especially in how we might be able to use artistic reconstructions and visuals to supplement more traditional historical forms of presentation like photographs, prose, and charts and graphs.

Soviet Daughter is a graphic novel telling two not-exactly-parallel stories. First, there is Lola, who died leaving a memoir to her descendants. Born in 1910 in Ukraine, Lola lived in the Soviet Union throughout most of the 20th century, and her sections of the book are mostly concerned with her struggle to survive and the various jobs, political activities, and love affairs she had during her life. The other, much smaller, part of the book concerns Julia Alekseyeva herself and her own struggles with Jewish identity, politics, and other more contemporary problems.

Because of this dual nature, although Soviet Daughter is widely reviewed as a memoir or autobiography, this characterization only sticks to Julia’s part of the book. These frame and contextualize the other parts of the story, and are key to the overall strategy of Soviet Daughter, but they can also serve to obscure the fact that the majority of the book is a graphic history that uses many of the narrative techniques and research methods of conventional histories.

Alekseyeva’s aims are obviously different from that of the academic or journalistic historian, being a more literary attempt to grapple with the meaning of a particular person in her own life, but even in this intimate context her work functions as a history. It is assembled from the author’s analysis of and selection from a primary source (Lola’s memoir), and narrates this history in a narrative sequence that’s meant to convey a particular truth about the people and events contained in it. Now, it’s true that Alekseyeva uses exact quotations from the memoir to narrate the story, but the substance of the story is incomplete without the drawings and visuals, which are every bit as interpretive and synthetic as a professional historian’s account.

Now, most historians don’t convey their analyses and findings in a primarily visual medium. That is not to say, however, that historians do not use visual means to convey information. Most of the time, however, these visual artifacts are photographs that are contemporary to the time and place being studied or charts and graphs that convey quantitative information or simplify complex systems and theoretical arguments. What I think Soviet Daughter and other graphic histories––either more journalistic like those of Joe Sacco or personal like Persepolis––challenge us to do as historians is consider the value of visual reconstructions and what role they can play in our work. By visual reconstruction I mean commissioned or self-produced visual representations of our arguments and narratives. We can keep our professional standards, footnotes, and so on, and ensure that readers are well-informed of the reenacting quality of these visuals, but they might be able to capture particularly difficult and ambiguous aspects of our histories that are not so amenable to prose explanations or more traditional graphic methods, especially when photographs might be inaccessible.

We as historians embrace and use prose because of its capacity for precision and the relative ease with which we can critique and utilize information conveyed through prose. That said, prose is not the best means of communicating either every idea or to every person. Not every human being learns best or can even easily understand highly abstract prose, and a history constructed through serial art but subjected to rigorous review might be a way to reach new people and to provoke new kinds of thinking about history, especially its visual and spatial aspects.

Someday, we might have an entire group of people who work as historical illustrators, working with authors and students to create well-researched and evocative images that can convey new understandings of history. At first, such works might seem like provocations, but we have to understand and utilize the full range of communications methods in history or else our marriage to prose might prevent us from fully exploring certain topics. And graphic history/memoirs like Alekseyeva’s show us that it can be done, though it might be for us to prove whether such a form is financially and professionally viable.

At the very least, it is worth considering as one of the many tangential possibilities available to historical scholars today and in the future.

Celebration of the Art of May Day

Growing up in North America, I first learned about May Day from pictures of Soviet military parades in my history books. I knew it was a Soviet national holiday but had no idea why until I learned about the Haymarket massacre and the strikes for the eight-hour day, which significant changed its meaning for me. Particularly in countries where Labour Day acts as a gentler official alternative to the real workers’ day, May Day can seem a bit arcane and distant. Still, since tomorrow is May Day and I’ll be heading down to the local rally––unfortunately more of a parade than a confrontational demonstration––I wanted to celebrate the art of May Day, the various ways that communities all around the world have been getting out the call to workers to join marches, parties, and demonstrations on May 1.

May Day 1895 by Walter CraneMayDayGarland1895.jpg

This poster from England in 1895 serves as an excellent example of commemorative art from the labour movement of that era. A women personifying justice holds up a garland of workers’ demands for an end to child labour, for socialism, for shorter working days. It’s a beautiful use of monochromatic art in a style I associate with book illustrations of the time.

Between 1920-40: Soviet Constructivist Poster

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The power of this image derives not only from its striking vertical composition and the dynamic way the red flag angles around the giant numeral 1, but also its use of photographic images stamped onto the flag. It also reflects the imperative demands of the early Soviet era: industrialization and the consolidation of proletarian power in the country

Italian Socialist Poster: 1902

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Another example of turn-of-the-century poster graphic design, this piece from the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) uses heavy outlines to good effect, though I have my qualms about the impassive facial expressions on the workers here. They look resolute, to be sure, but also quite reserved.

PFLP Poster: 1981

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The PFLP probably produced most of my favourite twentieth century political poster art, and this one fits well with their powerful aesthetic. We have the classic iconography of communism––the book, the hammer, and the sickle––placed against an energetic red-white-and-yellow background that highlights the foreground elements. I would seek out more of the PFLP’s work if you enjoy this piece.

Turkish May Day Poster: 2010

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May Day rallies were officially prohibited in Turkey between 1977 and 2010––and probably not looked upon well by the Erdogan government to this day––and this poster comes from that latter year. Like many more recent posters for May Day, it borrows the classic aesthetics of internationalism and workers’ struggle while using specifically digital editing hallmarks like the star between the two hands in this piece.

Business Cat Meme Poster: Early-Mid 2010s

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Speaking of recent innovations in poster design, this poster’s inversion of the “business cat” meme certainly marks it as the most unique bit of art in this retrospective. It doesn’t stick to the format of the meme, but its rows of feline calls to action are still cute, though its effectiveness is less clear.

IWW May Day Grand Rapids: 2011

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Since I wanted to finish this retrospective with some more recent posters from my own social contexts, I couldn’t leave this text-only poster out. Despite not including any images and reminding me of a music festival band list, I think it evokes the feeling of an old newspaper ad section quite well. Its variations in font size, spacing, and thickness sell the concept even if it is extremely simple. I only wish I had been more aware of left happenings in Grand Rapids when I lived there!

May Day Toronto: 2016

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And, yes, the march I will be attending tomorrow. Though it first appears cluttered and somewhat scatterbrained, I find that it actually coheres fairly well. It covers the major themes of May Day––police brutality, racism, the environment, indigenous solidarity, migrants’ and international workers’ solidarity, etc. It’s certainly not a traditional rendering of these themes, but that’s perfectly fine and shows that there are a number of ways to address the same issues even when framed by the same holiday.

RCP May Day Initiatives: 2016

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Those looking for a more traditional, if still contemporary, look to their May Day celebration posters can find them in the RCP initiatives for May Day. I’m quite fond of both of these images, particularly the sketchy and ink-blotched art style of the bottom one. Since they’re designed more as online banners than physical posters, they also reflect the changing ways in which people hear about and are motivated to go to May Day rallies. Both also emphasize the combative and rebellious nature of the holiday, which I have to say I prefer to the more polite and restrained style of the official work, even if the latter is overall more attractive.

Well, readers, another May Day is upon us. I wish you all the best and that we can all struggle for workers’ and people’s power together.

Bizarro Textbooks From the Front Lines

Hatred of textbook extortion is probably the one thing that could unite all North American university students. Copyright being what it is, there is often a disconnect between the size of the books we buy and the prices we are expected to pay. I’ve been up close and personal with the textbook buying process in the last couple of weeks, and have a few tidbits I thought were worth a late-night article. A little dip into the twilight zone of textbooks, we’ll say.

Human beings, especially human beings at a retail establishment, rely on their eyes to a disproportionate degree. It’s how we judge most food, meaning companies spend much of their time grooming food to look sexier rather than, you know, taste more delicious. Our visual impulses when buying books tell us that the larger and heavier the book, the more it should cost. A book the size of a pamphlet, in our minds, probably shouldn’t set us back more than ten dollars. But if it’s a collection of readings published in academic journals, that wafer-thin book is going to inflict punishment to the tune of over fifty dollars, at least. In this case, knowledge of publishing market dynamics is more useful than a visual impression. It still leaves many students with their jaws on the floor, dragging sadly as they walk out of the store with their newly purchased millstones.

But when it comes to textbooks and visual discrepancies, I’m interested in juicier material. Namely, the weird mismatch between what a book’s contents might be and the cover the publisher chose to wrap their product in. In a whirlwind of both direct experience and quick web searches, I discovered a few books that range from head-scratching to truly beyond the pale of reasonable design. In fact, attempting to rationalize these covers is probably much more fun than reading the words.

As an unrelated first example, I cannot begin to tell you why Monthly Review Press published a book on the financial crisis and put Samir Amin's mug on the cover. Haymarket would never pull this stunt.
As an unrelated first example, I cannot begin to tell you why Monthly Review Press published a book on the financial crisis and put Samir Amin’s mug on the cover. Haymarket would never pull this stunt.

Let’s ease into it. First, we have a textbook called Psychology: Themes and Variations, written by a trio of authors and published by Nelson. For comparison, let’s take a look at a version of this venerable text from the late 1990s:

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It looks dated now, but the abstract approach to the cover graphic has kept it relatively appealing and you could make a strong case for why this picture is on the front of a psychology textbook. Sure, it could also adorn a geometry textbook or a half dozen other subjects, but, unlike the new version, it does not actively disguise itself as another subject. Behold:

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I don’t recall noticing the Stephen Hawking quotation on the physical copies I’ve seen, but even with it removed, the first thought anyone would have upon seeing this book is “space.” In a more just alternate universe, this is an astronomy textbook. It’s true that you could argue that we perceive space with our minds or that the stars and the sky can function as a visual metaphor for psychology in some way. But it’s so much of a stretch that it utterly fails to communicate itself visually. Adding that Hawking quotation just makes me all the more suspicious that these covers were printed with the wrong title and author’s name and the publishing firm just shrugged and sent them out to unsuspecting psych students who are going to learn much more about Jupiter’s moons than they bargained for.

Our next specimen also upsets my expectations, but in a much less bemusing way. When you think of Plato’s Republic, or, for that matter, Plato at all, you probably visualize something like this:

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Or this

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Both are sensible, no-nonsense covers that accurately convey the fact that this is a book written by a Greek philosopher named Plato who probably had a beard of some luxuriousness. They’re staid and predictable, but that is almost comforting to the average first-year student in an intro to philosophy class. What follows is a cover that makes a modicum of sense but still made me do a double take when I saw it:

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True, The Republic/Republic does at times concern a vaguely utopian civilization that acts as a detailed metaphor for Plato’s ideal society of virtue. I would argue that the blinding sunset in 1980s Dystopia does not accurately convey this information. As a matter of fact, this design reminds me of nothing as much as airport novel books where the author’s name is printed so gigantically that the background could be anything and still pass stealthily by. It’s not baffling like the psych book, but it’s still a puzzling choice when “pasty statue” and “that one painting” are such obvious alternatives. I understand the need for a distinctive cover, but this is actually less distinctive than the stereotypical Plato covers, sublimating into something that is just truly bland.

From here we cross into uncharted territory, where respectable publishing houses produce material that actively confounds perception. These need less comment if only because their strange inappropriate design is much more blatant. Example:

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Oxford, as many might know, is a university complex in England, quite some distance away from Canada. I state this obvious geographical fact only because it’s the only straw I can grasp at to explain why the usually astute design team at Oxford decided to publish MacIvor’s book sheathed in a cover that does not even try to evoke its own subject matter. It appears to be depicting droplets of water and a meniscus or the top edge of some water in a container. A few of these drops are wayward, perhaps more free-willed than the others, drifting toward the bottom of the cover while leaving enough wiggle room to put the title and author’s name in there. I would love a cogent explanation of this, but I’m not holding my breath. What’s next?

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Well, I…

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Not sure…

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Just a second!

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For a brief and magic moment I thought the chicken was nesting on sheet music, but it was just my brain trying to trick me into thinking this makes sense.

Not really anywhere else to go. I suppose I would be able to write this off as “following tradition” if it weren’t for the fact that the book used to look like this:

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Which means the chicken was without a doubt intentionally introduced as a theme. Good night, everyone.

The Japanese Communists’ Cuteness Campaign

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Translation: Member in charge of “employment” Youkou Yoko (Employment Yoko)

Leftists in Japan have never had an easy time. State repression and one-party dominance of the legislature have worked to squeeze out most forms of official opposition. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) has been no exception. Despite being one of the leading social forces in Japan after the fall of the military government and the end of the Second World War, the party’s own failures to maintain a politics independent from the Soviet Union led it into a spiral of splitting and marginalization.

Of course, the Chinese Revolution in 1949 also provoked the Americans occupying Japan to reverse their attempts at democratizing Japan and led them to enact a policy of clamping down on labour and left movements and returning power to bureaucrats and monopolies. Rapid economic development, represented in the postwar era by rising GDP, became seemingly the only national priority, with the legacy today of a Japan with limited sovereignty that is dependent on American military protection and the colossal exploitation of its own increasingly precarious population, not to mention imperialist rents drawn from abroad.

But the JCP still exists and remains one of the most powerful old-guard communist parties in Asia to have never taken power. Putting aside questions of its political line or its relevance to politics today, it has produced some rather unique propaganda materials in recent years. While most communist and other left movements adhere to more traditional poster art styles, the JCP has adopted the aesthetics of “cute” manga, which are widely used even by governments and official organizations in Japan. Police departments, for example, often adopt cute manga-style mascots. Cuteness, or kawaii in Japan is, even more than in the West, an all-embracing aesthetic that is fairly gender-neutral, communicating softness and a non-threatening affect.

The poster seen below is representative of the JCP’s campaign:

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Translation of the white text: “Japan will turn into a warlike state!” The dogs are labeled “Self-Defence Dogs.”

This poster protesting the ruling Liberal Democrats’ attempts to rearm Japan in the name of “collective self-defence,” in the tradition of political cartoons, personifies so-called “self-defence” as a pack of grinning attack dogs while the bookish character of the right, a personification of the Japanese constitution called Pouken (a pun on the Japanese word for constitution, “Kenpou”) calls for us to recognize the dangers. Note that the constitution is portrayed as an older gentleman, and his speech on the accompanying web page is written in the exaggerated style of a senior citizen. The JCP is thus positioning this new modification of the constitution as being against postwar Japanese pacifist traditions and values.

Another part of the web campaign is a series of videos outlining party policies––mostly defined in opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government––in broad and humourous fashion. This one is a good example:

This video shows the JCP as a crusader against “Black Industry” and “Black Part-time Work,” which are terms used for highly exploitative workplaces, including sweatshops and offices that push workers into unpaid overtime. “Black Industry” perches atop a pyramid of overworked men in Japanese-style business attire, groaning under the weight. The JCP bursts in, represented as a woman in sharp glasses. At the end of each video, all of which can be found here, the party’s policy is summed up in a small slogan. A video discouraging the restarting of Japan’s nuclear power plants, for example, features a breakdancing sun shouting “protect our non-nuclear society!”

These graphics and videos might or might not be effective, and I have no way of judging that except on a subjective basis all the way out here in North America. But they do present a fascinating case of a left-wing party adapting its style of presentation to its home country. There’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned constructivist posters or other more traditional styles, but I have to say that I appreciate this campaign for its attempt to add levity to serious political matters, even if it can be cheesy.

Short Reflection on Learning to Dance

We see, therefore, at first the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections rather than the things that move, combine, and are connected. This primitive, naïve but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.

–Friedrich Engels, “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.”

In my humble opinion, there is only movement in heaven and on earth….

–Mao Zedong, “A Study of Physical Education”

For reasons of bureaucratic necessity, I enrolled for my final undergraduate semester in a dance class. Specifically, I am learning the fundamentals of the art of tap, a hybrid vernacular dance form that emerged, after a long and varied gestation, in the early industrial period. Combining the footwork of Irish jig with the expressive movements of African American performers, it is–for my often gangly body–demanding and difficult to learn. My basic lack of lower body coordination and tenuous grasp of balance are my most critical impediments, which I somewhat doubt will be solved in only twelve sessions of practice and evaluation. Nonetheless, I take this task seriously as part of an attempt to harmonize my intellectual studies with a refinement of my physical abilities. There is, too, something about the grace of movement that compels me both aesthetically and politically. Can dance be a tool of political education? Well, if the mere written word, so fixed and apparently silent, can be, why not? One of the most striking parts of Hisila Yami’s excellent proletarian feminist book People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal is not in her impressive prose but rather in a photograph of Maoist cadres performing a traditional dance infused with political significance. Whereas fascism aestheticizes art, Communists have the opposite mission–to politicize art. Absorbing the fact of the universe’s constant change and motion, the foundations of dialectical materialism, in your body, to be able to translate motion into stillness and back into motion, to refine the body and hone your skills to the point of mastery is a worthy goal, to be sure.

None of this saves me from being a terrible dancer at this time. But it fortifies my resolve to keep going and discover where the motions of my own body can take me.

How to Define Anime? Japonisme Lights the Way

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Esteemed comrade in blogging Critical Hit!!! has had an excellent two-part polemic on the definition of anime up for a couple of months, and I was not planning on contributing to this discussion until today. I hope that this short exposition will help clarify my position on the matter, which I share with her. Simply put, anime’s most useful definition in an English-speaking context is: animation from Japan (broadly) and animated products of the Japanese television industry (narrowly). Attaching stylistic connotations to that definition inevitably narrows audience expectations of what anime can entail, which in practice means that the “stylistic” definition of anime will inevitably be overdetermined by trends in popular shonen, meaning that it lacks any kind of analytical coherence.

Calling Avatar: The Last Airbender anime is, for supporters of such notions, meant to be a compliment, despite the fact that much anime is irredeemable excrement produced on a shoestring budget for a fairly disreputable and easily titillated consumer base. It’s an industry that produces pulp, and that means that creators with dedication and iron resolve can produce masterpieces like Revolutionary Girl Utena, The Tatami Galaxy, Trigun, and the like. It also means that there is far less quality oversight in anime than there is in, say, the Hollywood machine, which means that overall quality levels of production are going to be lower. Avatar is actually much, much better than most anime, guaranteed. What’s really going on is the result of a couple of factors I want to outline quickly before we get to the discussion of japonisme and its relationship to Japanese art proper.

Animation in the United States is immediately associated with the Walt Disney Company and its output, which means that there are a few traits all animation is expected to have by nature:

  1. “Family Friendliness:” animation is expected to be relatively inoffensive. Not lacking in drama or suspense necessarily, but definitely devoid of content that would offend the elusive “middle American family.” Essentially, the white, middle class Christian family is the expected default audience for animation: designed for the kids and a pleasant diversion for adults.
    1. This needs to be qualified by the fact that The Simpsons has single-handedly spawned a set of works that are in active dialogue with, and are thus also partially determined by, Disney’s influence. Offensive and “transgressive” shows like South Park are animated because of two aspects of animation’s cultural place in the US. First, animation gives you more freedom to show offensive content without causing legal sanction, as Ralph Bakshi (a director definitely working in direct antagonism to Disney) realized back in the early 1970s. Sex and violence are felt to be super-transgressive if shown in an animated format because of assumption 1 above. So on televion, animation is expected to be either for children or exaggerated comedy for adults.
  2. It’s expected to be comedic at least in part. Pixar gets acclaim for working in some proper drama once in awhile, for instance the opening scene of Up, but every Pixar film is also heavily comedic. Disney’s own canon is fairly heavy on romances with big swathes of time handed over to comic relief characters, to a more extreme extent in Aladdin and to a lesser extent in a film like Pinocchio. An animated film without laughs is an anomaly, indeed almost anathema, to the culture industry in America.
  3. Animation is expected to be fantastical. Television comedies, because of the vast influence of The Simpsons, can adhere to this rule to varying degrees––witness King of the Hill––but it’s more or less unchallenged in the cinemas. Superheroes, dragons, talking animals, princesses, magic, and science fiction are all “appropriate” subject matter for animation, while realistic films like Whisper of the Heart or a television show like The Flowers of Evil would be met with questions like “why is this animated?” Live action is taken to be the default for portraying reality, and animation is expected to be far more dreamlike. Japanese animation has plenty of fantasy too, but it isn’t entirely fantasy like in the United States.

There are others, but they tend to fit well within those three categories. Now, Korra adheres to all of these rules extremely well. It’s a textbook instance of American animation in the Disney style: a lushly drawn fantasy adventure that cedes considerable screen time to romance and comic relief that is palatable for middle America and avoids showing death or real suffering (or sexuality) whenever possible. Of course, plenty of anime fit that as well, though with certain specific content markers like blood and titillation (never actual sex except in porn, for the most part) being more acceptable to the consumers anime production teams are targeting.

Given all of that, most animation is structurally incapable of attaining the dubious honors of institutions like the Academy Awards even if some cartoons have been interred in the Library of Congress or given sundry honors. Animated films do not fit the Oscar model: they are fantastical, comedic, and for children in this ideology, all three of which disqualify them, with certain exceptions, from serious consideration. Few animated films get canonized in American cinema, in sharp contrast to Japanese or mid-century Soviet cinema.

This means that there’s a cache attached to the term anime that is utterly unwarranted. Since most people don’t know anything about Soviet animation, “anime” is the only word most Americans have for animation that in any way finds itself outside of the fantastical, comedic, for children triangle. Even if Korra or Avatar actually fit those categories very well, they feel like they don’t because of their vast scale and tightly integrated and serialized storytelling, both borrowed from shonen conventions that fans recognize as “anime.” This is how the stylistic definition gets its political weight. Animation in the United States has a dearth of critical recognition. The only community that actively cares about and consumes animation intentionally and defines themselves by that consumption is the anime community. Being excluded from that community’s discussion means exclusion from the only modicum of respect that animated works get in the United States besides a few prestige films.

That means there are real stakes to this definition problem. Unfortunately, the stylistic definition has no weight to it. In any case, I would recommend that fans of shows like Ben 10, Samurai Jack, Korra, et al, start to build up and advocate for American animation on its own terms, rather than using the term “anime” as a crutch. It can be useful, of course, to compare Korra to anime because that’s part of its taxonomy. Refusing to consider the comparison would be like refusing to compare birds to reptiles out of an obsessive need to idealize and seal off categories you happen to like despite the evidence. On the other hand, no one calls birds “reptiles” just because they think reptiles are cool and birds don’t get much respect (hypothetically); the categories are scientific rather than founded on the caprices of prestige and cultural “capital” each term might carry.

After that long and winding road, we’re finally up to japonismewhich bears some direct resemblances to the current American fetish for anime stylings. Japonisme was an artistic mini-movement in France in the later nineteenth century. It resulted from French artists’ exposure to ukiyo-e (floating world) woodblock prints, which made them want to experiment and incorporate that specific style into their artwork. A Japanese original might look like this piece from Utagawa Toyokuni :

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While Post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh produced the following image, entitled Le Courtesan:

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The image is instructive because it’s such a clear melding of different aesthetic heritages. It’s flat figuration and cultural marks are unmistakably Japanese, but no one would be surprised that Vincent Van Gogh produced it. It has an entirely different cultural meaning than the first image because it is produced in conscious imitation rather than organically according to traditional standards. Van Gogh is being transgressive, using a foreign style in order to disrupt the status quo in his own field––not to mention being extremely orientalist, but that’s mostly beside the point.

Likewise, compare this character set from Bleach…

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To one from Korra:

THE LEGEND OF KORRA

There are individual idiosyncrasies in things like the angularity of lines, density of the characters, etc. At the same time, these differences are enveloped within a broad derivation that Korra makes from shows like Bleach. Korra’s Asian-inspired fantasy setting also contributes to this sense of closeness to the anime “look.” At the same time, just like Van Gogh was not making ukiyo-e, since his art served a completely different cultural purpose and in a separate context. It’s produced for American eyes by Americans (with Korean wage slave labor) in the context of the Disneyfied American animation industry.* None of the key creative decisions were shaped by the Japanese industry and despite the off-and-on participation of a Japanese animation studio, that studio had no control over the content of the show per se. It is, fundamentally, not Japanese and therefore cannot be considered anime. It’s not even a compelling edge case like Masaaki Yuasa’s episode of Adventure TimeAnd attempting to call it anime is doing it a disservice, cheapening the admittedly extraordinary achievement of producing a relatively dramatic serialized animation for Nickelodeon, of all channels. Avatar and Korra are breakthroughs and they used a language borrowed from anime to bridge the gap. For what it’s worth, the more profound achievement will come when such a show can exist on American television free from restrictions and in a unique style that does not rely on these kinds of associations to connect to a particular audience. Because the Avatar story, as all capitalist stories go, is just as much about realizing investment capital as it is creating an artistic work. Anime fans were a viable market in the mid-2000s, and therefore Nickelodeon attempted to get them to watch their channel with something more like anime.

If animation is going to flourish here, the capitalist censors and the profit motive have to go. For now, we need to celebrate something like Korra, and criticize it, according to categories that make sense instead of attaching an irrational value judgment to a word it does not belong to. By Van Gogh’s missing ear, that’s the last I have to say on this matter.

*Japanese animation is also Disneyfied, but in a much more elliptical way since Disney’s influence is very much secondhand, absorbed through Osamu Tezuka’s idiosyncratic adaptation of the Disney style.

David Harvey on the Commodification of Art and the Aesthetics of Daily Life

David Harvey is a geographer and political economist and one of the most influential Marxist thinkers still working.
David Harvey is a geographer and political economist and one of the most influential Marxist thinkers still working.

The struggle to produce a work of art, a once and for all creation that could find a unique place in the market, had to be an individual effort forged under competitive circumstances. Modernist art has always been, therefore, what Benjamin calls ‘auratic art,’ in the sense that the artist had to assume the aura of creativity, of dedication to art for art’s sake, in order to produce a cultural object that would be original, unique, and hence eminently marketable at a monopoly price. The result was often a high individualistic, aristocratic, disdainful (particularly of popular culture), and even arrogant perspective on the part of cultural producers.¹

This is how Harvey characterizes the avant-garde of early European modernism. Unchained from the constraints of aristocratic patrons and forced to market their wares to a specialized audience of cultural consumers––namely the bourgeoisie––they had to establish a monopolized “seal” or “aura” of integrity, or else their products could be sullied. The connections between this attitude and lingering debates over “authenticity” even in popular art production should be apparent. Harvey turns the page, however, and finds that the artists’ aura was largely illusory, since their aesthetics had to grapple with the increasingly accelerating change in how mundane life was lived in industrializing Europe.

The facts of daily life had, however, more than a passing influence upon the aesthetic sensibility created, no matter how much the art its themselves proclaimed an aura of ‘art for art’s sake…’ It is important to keep in mind, therefore, that the modernism that emerged before the First World War was more of a reaction to the new conditions of production (the machine, the factory, urbanization), circulation (the new systems of transport and communications), and consumption (the rise of mass markets, advertising, mass fashion), than it was a pioneer in the production of such changes.²

This is unsurprising since Marxists understand that being determines consciousness rather than the other way around. It would be wrong, however, to hastily close the book on the matter.

Not only did [modernism] provide ways to absorb, reflect upon, and codify these rapid changes, but it also suggested lines of action that might modify or support them…As Relph goes on to point out, the Bauhaus, the highly influential German design unit founded in 1919, initially took much inspiration from the Arts and Crafts Movement that [William] Morris founded, and only subsequently (1923) turned to the idea that ‘the machine is our modern medium of design.’³

Aesthetics evolved from and with the changes material conditions of life, reflecting upon them and changing course frequently, creating a panoply of new movements and aesthetic schools all competing for attention in a world of mass consumption. Today, the situation is no different except that the dynamics of capitalism have pulled the “aesthetics market” in contradictory directions, with control of artistic production and distribution increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer firms. On the other hand, the Internet has galvanized a movement in the opposite direction, as these more and more monopolistic enterprises divide and conquer their markets, refining and specializing their products and branding for ever-tinier demographic targets. In every way, the festive parade of innovative new fads in design and art reflect the acceleration of market turnover, and this is only because cultural production is an increasingly efficient branch of capitalist production. Where some see the Internet as bringing revolution and disruption, it seems to me that it’s merely changing the geography of how we consume, connecting us to more places and people and quickening those connections––usually to the benefit of some media or technology titan gracefully providing us the tech to do so.

Notes: 

1. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell 1989), 22.

2. Ibid, 23.

3. Ibid, 23-24

The Illusion of Choice: On “Popular” vs. Mass Art

mainstream-media-monopoly

Commentators and activists with a leftist bent have been raising the alarm over the monopolization of the culture industry for as long as anyone can remember. Neo-liberalized ownership rules and lax regulatory frameworks have allowed a small circle of plutocrats to devour smaller companies left and right. Far too often, these alarms are wedded to the premise that media can be fair or balanced under capitalism if only there are enough small players. Long before the current round of consolidations, the culture industry in capitalist centres made it its business to propagate a desolate, one-dimensional popular culture. What is happening here is just the normal mechanisms of capitalism at work, and we know that “The enormous growth of industry and the remarkably rapid concentration of production in ever-larger enterprises are one of the most characteristic features of capitalism.”¹ Power and wealth concentrate in fewer and fewer hands as the vast majority of workers, and eventually even smaller capitalists, fall victim to monopolization.

It’s helpful to keep the above in mind because one of the most important challenges confronting the Left is the creation of truly mass art, culture, philosophy, etc. Often, however, liberal tendencies in media criticism tend to misidentify the current popular culture as the culture of the masses, believing that there is a correspondence between what people want and what the culture industry manufactures for them. Critics who buy into this mystification often attack cultural work that is imagined to be highbrow or obscure, as well as the critics who champion such work, as snobs or elitists. Popularity, expressed as attendance figures, ratings, and, in the final instance, dollar figures (i.e. capitalist profits) becomes for them a vital metric for the significance of a work.

One particularly unsightly manifestation of this phenomenon is in “poptimist” music criticism. While it has a few valuable insights about how conventional music criticism is constricted by an unquestioning allegiance to “rockist” standards, it ultimately amounts to nothing more than a crude celebration of Billboard and whatever the monopolists promote as valuable at a given moment. Popularity is mistaken for relevance to the masses, market categories for meaningful “diversity.” While it is important to understand “pop” music (here understood as a marketing category and production process that de-centers the individual writer-artist rather than a coherent genre or style), it is far too easy to slide into simply validating what the monopoly feeds people. Another error I’ve addressed in the past is the direct opposite, imagining that the sophisticated and “independent” producers can somehow escape the dictates of the market, the crude economist straitjacket that binds all of culture in the capitalist centres and increasingly extends its grip to the rest of the world as well.

wolf-of-wall-street-movie-uk-poster
A film in which countless women were commodified to create a spectacle can be excused for being “critical” in the shallowest way possible.

Ultimately, consuming one form of art or another can render no particular virtue to anyone. But art criticism tends to only concern itself with the moment of consumption, the subjective experiences of the critic or audience that has paid its admission fee. For Marxists, the question of production takes the first priority. Who is producing art, and for whom? Popular art today might need the masses to line up for blockbusters and tune in to The Big Bang Theory to generate profits, but that makes it in no way genuine mass art. It is art by and for elites, designed to promote and profit from the basest human desires––and this is often the case in a more obscure way for more highbrow art as well. “As Chairman Mao states, Whatever is under the leadership of the bourgeoisie can- not possibly be of the masses.”² Mass art proceeds from the masses, through production facilities and distribution channels collectively owned and democratically managed by all the people. It fulfills people’s needs, provoking their curiosity and encouraging their noblest attributes. Mass art recognizes neither the elitism of the old aristocratic arts nor the crass pandering of popular entertainments. For the sake of nuance, I am obliged to say that, within the current order, it is possible and, for revolutionary artists, necessary to create mass art, if only on an experimental basis. The criterion for such works, however, is not beauty alone but their capacity to move people toward revolution. This is articulated beautifully in the manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema:”³

“Any attempt, no matter how virulent, which does not serve to mobilise, agitate, and politicise sectors of the people, to arm them rationally and perceptibly, in one way or another, for the struggle – is received with indifference or even with pleasure. Virulence, nonconformism, plain rebelliousness, and discontent are just so many more products on the capitalist market; they are consumer goods. This is especially true in a situation where the bourgeoisie is in need of a daily dose of shock and exciting elements of controlled violence (7) – that is, violence which absorption by the System turns into pure stridency. Examples are the works of a socialist-tinged painting and sculpture which are greedily sought after by the new bourgeoisie to decorate their apartments and mansions; plays full of anger and avant-gardism which are noisily applauded by the ruling classes; the literature of ‘progressive’ writers concerned with semantics and man on the margin of time and space, which gives an air of democratic broadmindedness to the System’s publishing houses and magazines; and the cinema of ‘challenge,’ of ‘argument,’ promoted by the distribution monopolies and launched by the big commercial outlets”

Whether arising from the avarice of the big bourgeoisie or the solipsism and petty academic concerns of the petty bourgeoisie, the art of capitalist centres is in the main corrupt and reactionary. Its watchwords are tedium, mindless repetition, and gross violations of the human person. Only the revolutionary seizure of the means of production––cultural and otherwise, since the culture industry is utterly dependent on the other industries to survive––by the proletariat can allow for the conditions in which truly mass art can bud and flourish. Our criticism of media cannot stop at our impressions and opinions; it must extend to the very origins of whatever we are observing. Only then can it serve as a truly radical critique, understanding not only what something means but who it means something to and whose interests it serves. If we do not understand these things, we will fail to understand art, which is every much as part of the concrete world as it is the world of ideas.

chairman-mao-is-the-reddest-sun-in-our-hearts

Notes:

1. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

2. Mao, “Talks at the Yenan Forum On Literature and Art”

3. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “Towards a Third Cinema”

Other helpful links on the subject:

Walter Benjamin: “On the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

JMP: “Imperialism and False Consciousness”

(I did not speak much on the issue of imperialism as it relates to reproducing capitalism as a world system and its role in oppressing the peripheral nations to the profit of the centre, which I will rectify at a later date.)

The Author Has a Social Life: Roland Barthes and Evangelion

Unlike most living authors, I have at one point been dead. I don’t mean that at one point I was composed of nonliving stardust floating in the ether rather than organic meat parts. I mean that for a considerable period I was dead and living in tiger heaven, then in hell with the hungry ghosts. Surely, if anyone is entitled to argue for the “death of the author” it should be yours truly. I wrote much of my best work while dead, as a matter of fact, and met my lovely companion Mr. Harold Zo while technically lifeless. All the same, I notice that most people compose works of literature while alive. Dead people don’t tend to have the time or energy to blog, or the creative spark you need to make a splash in the literary world. I suppose a dead person could be a critic, but no one would want to read the ramblings of a sedentary subterranean layabout, now would they? Even less so if it was just a pile of ashes or worm excrement writing.

It might seem trite to argue against a popular theory like the “death of the author” by simply asserting the obscure fact that all of our great works of literature were composed by the living. Rest assured, if I appear glib it is only because I have a nagging toothache in my front left canine and I don’t see Roland Barthes doing me any good on that score. 

With that introductory blather safely stowed, allow me to double back and address the video you may or may not have watched. PBS’ Idea Channel is a video portal on Youtube that functions as a kind of Intellectualism 101, perfect conversation fodder for those who want to dip their toes into complicated issues like semiotics and literary theory without having to read anything. Their production values and editing are more professional than the normal Youtube flock, and the content is snappily written and delivered with punchy sound effects and computer graphics intended to provide some levity. When Idea Channel put out this video on Neon Genesis Evangelion and the death of the author, I was initially trepidatious, for reasons I hope you will grasp. It’s difficult to make sense out of Derrida in a human lifetime–much less a tiger’s lifespan–and I tend to think, having read some of his work, that it’s not worth the effort for anyone except academics. Yet, in five minutes, the video manages to do a competent job at both presenting a text, in this case the aforementioned anime, and put forward a decent argument for why it might support Barthes’ and Derrida’s frameworks, if they should be so called.

At the same time, I am extremely skeptical of this so-called death of the author, as you have already gleaned. Soon it will be time to expand on what I mean by saying that I am skeptical of the theory because authors have to write when they are alive. First, however, it’s worth looking at Barthes’ original presentation of the idea in his essay entitled, cleverly enough, “The Death of the Author,” published in 1967. Though I believe this is not a theory that gives us powerful tools for understanding a work’s meaning and significance in a social and material context (more on those two aspects later), there is a good reason why Barthes argues that it is necessary to assert the death of the author. The last line of the essay is one of the more famous passages: “We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”¹ There is an end in mind, namely to reassert the place of the reader, the consumer of the text, rather than its producer, as the primary creator of meaning for the text. Earlier in the essay,  Barthes makes the religious  and political significance of his pronouncement more clear:

 In precisely this way literature (it would bebetter from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases-reason, science, law.²

This text takes some work to unpack. Barthes asserts that the belief in a transcendent Author who bestows an eternally fixed meaning into a text from above is akin to the belief in God. Taking the modernist and atheist project to new limits, he not only believes to reject the myth of a divine creator is necessary to free humankind (note he calls the liberation of readers from fixed meaning “revolutionary”) but that it is also necessary to reject the creative human subject. After all, the creative, productive human subject is that which modernism makes it its duty to emancipate. Reason, science, and law are here lumped in with God and, in the name of giving birth to the reader, are tossed out. This anti-totalizing project, descended from Nietzsche with the help of semiotics and other sociological discourses about language and culture that were emerging in the 1960s, is obviously hostile to any theories that might enmesh a certain text in a time and place, recognize a text as embedded in a living material reality. Instead, what Barthes does is wrest the text from God/Author’s cold dead hands, plant it firmly, and punt it into the stratosphere. Texts, in this analysis, live on a floating and idealistic plane where their only significance is that which the privileged individual reader or critic finds it. It’s a realm with no history, no real material whatsoever. It’s, oddly enough, both free-floating and firmly anchored in an eternal present.

On a quick side note, I find it curious that, for all his lofty rhetoric about restoring the place of the reader, even using very visceral birth imagery, he also manages to argue, “Yet this destination [the reader] cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.” In other words, not only is the author dead, but the reader, for all intents and purposes, is as well.

While this idea is meant to prevent the arrogant Critic from discovering some metaphysical “secret meaning” within a text and pass it down to the laypeople as authoritative, I believe it ends up putting the critic in an even more enviable position than before. Now the critic need not even try to parse through layers of a text, understanding biography and history and how the author’s social class and ideology condition our reception of the text. A pox on that! Instead, the critic is able to find pretty much any meaning that makes grammatical sense and can be supported by the critic’s own theoretical presuppositions, without any deeper analysis of where those presuppositions might have originated and whether they accord with reality or not. Literature is detached from flesh, blood, and dirt, which means that it can be easily abused and manipulated by critics who are more clever than disciplined (see Slavoj Žižek’s terrible review of 300 and an online comrade’s takedown of it if you are so inclined).

This is the problem with erasing the producing subject, as well as with simply doing away with universal categories and maintaining that everything is only an atomized particular. One is unaccountable to the class character of reality, the way that social context and history shape a work’s creation and its reception. Evangelion makes a perfect example. It’s perfectly reasonable to say that Hideaki Anno is not a somehow Godlike creator of a work which perfectly expresses his individual intentions. Rather, it is conditioned by global capitalism, by the economic situation in Japan when it was created, by Anno’s membership in a certain social class, by his vocation as an artist. On the reception end, it became a massive cultural phenomenon because it clearly resonated with a certain disaffected but materially privileged section of the Japanese, and was exploited to its maximum by companies because it could make them a quick profit. Its narrative does not have a simple, universal, and unlock able meaning; in fact, it probably has a number of contradictions. While captive to a capitalist ideology because it was produced in a bourgeois society, it nonetheless has a clear warning about making human beings into disposable tools. At the same time, its bleak sense of apocalypse never transcends the individual, makes the individual psyche the centre of its narrative, and understands our current oppressed situation not as the result of a historically contingent capitalist mode of production that can be transcended through revolutionary activity. Instead, the solution is simply to seize control of our own lives, stop relying on others to define our precious identities, and recognize that we shouldn’t be so selfish and cowardly because we hurt others.

When I say that the author can’t be dead because people write when they are alive, I mean that a living person is a body caught up in certain relations of production, conditioned by ideology, forced to write or make art to sustain themselves and thus forced to commodify their work. A person lives in a certain social situation. It’s not as though authors are able to impose a unified meaning. But all art reflects a definite social and material reality, while also helping to reproduce or counter hegemonic ideologies that help to reinforce that material reality. Thus a Marxist theory of literature can certainly agree with Barthes’ essay that the author is not some God spinning meaning out of fine gold and bestowing it on humans. What I can and must reject, however, is the notion that we need not create responsible criticism, that we can imagine that all of the world is text rather than understanding that text is part of a real world. When we see contradictions in a text, that is not indicative that it supports any reading, but that it is reflecting real contradictions in the world.

Art, as I have argued crudely in the past, should be at the service of human emancipation, participating in the class struggle on the behalf of the oppressed masses and not giving the ruling class ammunition to further mystify and oppress. For this, we need to know who we are accountable to, namely real human beings. Both authors and readers do have histories, biographies, psychologies, and cultures. These are the inescapable facts of living as social beings. It’s totalizing because the ruling class is unified and total. The oppressions are total, and so our counter-hegemonic art and literature needs to be total as well. What we need is not to abandon unity or universality for a blizzard of separate and special snowflakes. It’s what is necessary for criticism that is not just clever and self-aggrandizing but criticism that is in service to artists, humble before the people, and placed in the service of revolution rather than suspended in the air, arguing over meaningless theoretical minutiae without regard for the real struggles going on below.

1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 1967.
2. Ibid.