CITIES, policy & design

Show Ponies for a Young Nation

Show Ponies For A Young Nation

By Jana Perkovic

There’s a thriving, internationally recognised performance scene in Australia — but it’s barely reflected in the programming of major arts companies, writes Jana Perkovic

Beneath the surface of Australian cities bubbles an undercurrent of performance. Artists — both young and old, trained and untrained — are creating small interventions of chaos and beauty, much of which draws on specific local traditions of vernacular theatre: travelling circus, pub music, guerrilla performance, mixed-media cabaret.

It’s easy to dismiss these forms as niche pursuits; and they are, indeed, an ecosystem of small communities. When this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival organised a perplexingly dull launch for McSweeney’s, one of the world’s most innovative young literary journals, it was the Suitcase Royale, a local performance collective, who saved the event with an electrifying gig/stand-up/performance.

If our literature has forgotten joie de vivre, and our cinema is proclaimed “recovered” on the basis of seven good films a year, then theatre certainly ought to be recognised as one thing Australia consistently does well.

Overseas, reviewers rave about Acrobat, Back to Back, Panther and Chunky Move: circus, physical theatre, interactive performance companies producing cutting-edge work in their select fields. They don’t pay so much attention to the companies that swallow the lion’s share of our arts funding: our state theatres.

With the honourable exception of Melbourne’s Malthouse, our major performing arts companies have persistently avoided this undercurrent, opting for programming that lacks flair. Even allowing that 2009 was a panicky year for the mainstream — the Global Financial Crisis bit into both ticket sales and corporate sponsorship — the year’s programs were altogether business-as-usual. Fifty years after Merce Cunningham choreographed to chance music and Beckett put nothingness itself on stage, our theatres still offer a bewilderingly old-fashioned mix of European classics, last year’s Broadway and West End successes, and a smattering of local plays with music (the latter to be distinguished from musical theatre by virtue of being unfunny).

Scavenging through Australia’s main stage offerings in 2003, German journalist Anke Schaefer noted that “every expectation of a German audience of 100 years ago would have been well served by these productions.” The problem is not just that our mainstream theatre is overwhelmingly male-dominated and almost completely white. And it’s not that staging a play written in 1960 is still considered adventurous — it is the abyss between what the bulk of “performing artists” in this country are doing and the work showcased on the well-funded stages.

To be fair, there have been some improvements over the past few years. The Lawler Studio is a not-yet-properly-funded baby stage for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) with a small, but promising season, and the Sydney Theatre Company’s maturing Next Stage program brought in Perth wunderkind Matthew Lutton — and will present the abovementioned Suitcase Royale in 2010. But for every innovation that reaches a big audience, there is a scathing critical attack from the likes of Peter Craven that we need better-made plays, not avant-garde tinkering.

Craven typifies the deep conservative current in our theatre commentariat. While aficionados have organised themselves in the blogosphere, forming a reliable network of guerrilla arts reportage, the mainstream patron is limited to the opinions of the mainstream press, which consistently criticises any departure from pleasant digestive after-dinner theatrical fare.

The understanding that permeates theatre criticism, funding policies, festival curatorship, even the design of performing arts venues, is that theatre is an expensive toy to show off to our international visitors. It helps prove that here, at the arse end of the world, we have a functioning high culture. Arguably, we build “world-class” arts centres, fund show-pony opera and invest in international arts festivals because we fear being mistaken for a subcultural backwater. A national ballet ensemble — like a broadcasting network, a flag, an army and a giant ferris wheel — is a sign of a serious nation.

Hence the currency of theatre as an impossibly highbrow endeavour, something that excludes large swathes of the population who claim not to attend for the pricey “elitism” of arts events. Yet, when we leave the realm of the ethereal and the literary, of The Nutcracker and King Lear, it is often hard to distinguish performing arts from fairgrounds and other dubious entertainments.

Our mainstream arts funding reflects this confusion. Theatre is sometimes a flagship investment, and sometimes a failing commercial sector in need of subsidy. If we give it money, it better demonstrates its market relevance. Most of our state festivals were set up as tourism initiatives, providing world-class this and gold star that — but they are also judged on the extent to which they animate the city.

State companies are thus in a double bind: they ought to stage excellent interpretations of classics, but they also need to keep their subscriber base with populist programming. The media and the funding bodies do not question populism. Here the Peter Cravens, Andrew Bolts and Paul Keatings of the nation join voices to demand in unison that we fund some quality orchestras before sponsoring avant-garde wank.

So, while Opera Australia can cross-fund its season with My Fair Lady without reprimand, Kristy Edmunds’s edgy curatorship of Melbourne Festival was viciously attacked as — you guessed it — “elitist”: insular, pretentious, niche. But young audiences responded and artists found her choices inspiring.

This year, under Brett Sheehy’s artistic direction, the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF) broke box office records — mainly due to the sell-out performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra — and gleaned glowing praise for restoring mainstream common sense to the program. Yet the local theatre community has criticised it as too white, too European, too predictable, focusing on big-ticket events at the expense of smaller, braver shows, and — yes — “elitist”. In this equation, elites, like hell, are always other people.

It is a scavenger hunt for audiences. Where the audience preferences lie is not so clear. The MTC may have the largest subscriber base in the country but it is rapidly aging. Programming for the middle-class, middle-suburb punter may rely on unwise mathematics: audiences are not developed through insistence on a 19th-century understanding of highbrow. For all its success at the box office, often I felt off attending MIAF 09 performances surrounded by an audience thrice my age.

Melbourne Fringe featured no Philharmonic and managed to break its box office record in 2009 — despite the GFC — showing how robust specialised audience loyalty can be. TINA and Imperial Panda, independent arts festivals in NSW, have also done well, as has the inaugural Dance Massive, dedicated exclusively to contemporary dance. Perhaps mainstream programming should acknowledge these “passionate communities” and “creative laboratories” that make up the solid core of the arts audience: they, after all, nurture its most vibrant new developments. Even fans of well-made plays, we should recognise, are increasingly becoming a niche.

Rather than trying to stretch nation-making dinosaurs over an increasingly diverse nation, we should focus on nurturing smaller, specialised festivals, and recognise that our cultural excellence may lie not in opera but in grungy circus. Our current funding model is completely unsuitable for this task. Audiences will not develop through programming that blends the safest aspects of all our arts into a soup that, in attempting to please everyone, pleases no one. What we should do, instead, is encourage the continuing exploration of the many vibrant art forms thriving under the radar: they count as culture. And statehood? Aren’t we too old to worry about that?

Originally published on 31 December 2009, on NewMatilda.com

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CITIES, poetics of life, theatre

RW: Attract/Repel

The more I wanted to write this review quickly, the more I wanted it out and about, succint, streamlined and brilliant, the more I was tripping over my own inarticulation. The enthusiasm I had for writing seemed to derive from not knowing what it was I had to say, nor how. Why such caution before a very positive review? Because the praise I had to offer for Attract/Repel came from an unusual place; because of an avoidance of reviewing the previous show by Melbourne Town Players. Because the material does not easily lend itself to a watertight argument that can neatly encapsulate all that it does as a show. Finally because this review immediately follows a fascinating, if at times painful dialogue that grew out of a condemnatory critique of En Trance, a show that made artistic and dramaturgical choices that failed precisely where A/R succeeds.

If the foyer chatter on the opening night was anything to go by, we were in a minefield of opinions, impossible to exhaust in a 1,000-word review, no matter how well-chosen the thousand. I was midway through my annual contemplation of multiculturalism, having just found the perfect interlocutor. That, about 100 hours into the discussion, I discovered the interlocutor was more precisely the sensei, having written the text which seminally, famously, taught me all my thoughts on multiculturalism back in 2006, did not help. I was arguing with my spiritual uncle, if not exactly father, it turned out, and he was more than happy to keep challenging my hasty (but oh so quotable!) conclusions.

Terry Yeboah and Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

“Seeing a work that deals with topics I’ve spent solid three years thinking about”, I complained to Neandellus soon after, “makes it harder, not easier to write about. I have too many half-formed, unquotable thoughts.”

“Make your sensei write it”, was his suggestion. If only! Sensei (whom we’ll call ‘Ian’) declared he knew nothing about theatre, and was happy with correcting me. So I started:

Amidst the uneven, but fulsome praise for Attract/Repel circulating the foyer on opening night, it was apparent that this show’s merit arises in its slipping almost un-noticed across a series of borders that themselves are rarely ever acknowledged as such.

But ‘Ian’ was already slapping me on the wrist: “What you mean to add is: Borders which some have named the borders of whiteness, with quiet encroachments of the real into everyday fantasies of white supremacy in multicultural Australia.”

He continued: “The truths enacted through the show operated on an inversion of the assumptions presumed normal to a functional society, a logic more dependent on the potential for misunderstanding, misrecognition and mistaken identity.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” I nodded hastily, and continued:

It is quite different from The Melbourne Town Players’ previous work in not being veiled, stripping away most of the veneer of artiness, leaving the art instead. Yet A/R has been shaped with a clear eye and a strong dramaturgical hand into an exquisitely crafted work, building a rich spectrum of thought and feeling out of associative nuances. It takes courage and maturity to recognise the theatre in four people on chairs talking about their personal experience, and it was, indeed, beautifully crafted theatre. 

Four performers, fluorescent tubes, and a wall painted blackboard-black. A/R is beautifully ordinary, threateningly postdramatic perhaps, as the actors ask and answer personal questions, tell funny stories (and tales about racial stereotyping, from the butt-end of essentialising assumptions, tend to be hysterically funny), find dead ends to arguments, change direction, change key, but ultimately, and intentionally go nowhere in particular. Where was the dramatic development?, complained one person whom Ming-Zhu Hii would have, in the days of Mink Tails, labelled identifiably white. I looked at ‘Ian’ for answers, and he obliged:

“The lack of a progressive movement to a climactic denouement is one of the show’s great strengths, instead presenting a series of plateaux oscillating between affective highs and lows – disgust and desire, anger and joy, sufficient to illustrate the tenor of its thesis. It was true to the subject matter. There is no resolution to the problem – you go from feeling elated because you’re accepted, to crashing down because of some racist remark; you solve a problem, you find another. Attract, Repel.”

Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

Relieved, I could go on:

How to talk about A/R, which can be read as a very successful moment in the Australian political theatre, without getting factional? It is a beautiful work, but its strengths and innovations really shine when looked at as political theatre – and the political discourse now needed to be employed would likely be alienating. 

There is a strong nod to Jerome Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and I – far more so than to circus acts like an oak tree: the staged conversation is personal and unforced, improvised-looking rather than scripted for theatrical friction. While A/R does not quite reach the same magnitude of light-handed yet devastating effect, there is no shame in not being Jerome Bel. There are moments in the show of similar gentle, but enormous, destabilisation of effect. Right after a reasonably heavy story of racial discrimination, Terry Yeboah starts talking about his white girlfriend, and unexpectingly breaks out saying, She’s here tonight! Hi, baby!, and she responds! The effect of turning our heads back into the audience, seeing someone normal, socialised, unremarkable, in the place of a villain, belies interpretation. 

It could have so easily gone wrong many times; the politics of the effect are more noteworthy than the politics of the representation that occurred. By definition, political theatre tries to ‘make things happen’, as Caryl Churchill once said; in Michael Patterson’s book Strategies of Political Theatre, British playwrights overwhelmingly defined political theatre as theatre that has an impact on the audience, that affects them beyond the doors of the theatre building. In other words, whether what is staged is four children playing, or racial tension, is not the deciding factor in whether a theatre piece is political or not.  

By keeping the performers as performers, and the audience as audience, A/R renounces the very role of theatre as a heightened state of exception that, by definition, confirms the rule. In order to build resonance in a string of moments, anecdotes and effects that are inherently unremarkable; it strips away the entire frame of ritual, purification, deeper meaning and condensation that has been hanging over textual theatre like an Aristotelian hangover, and that political theatre in particular doesn’t know how to do without.  

Yet it is not all just pussyfooting detail. The interventions are real, but subtle. From the moment she draws a CHINK SCALE on the wall, rather than spitting on its implicit racism, Jing-Xuan Chan and the others proceed to explicate the variety of positions they may occupy depending on the situation. We are immediately in very interesting territory. Here, rather than mere victims of incipient racism, is an illustration of strategic essentialism.

‘Ian’ nudged me sternly: “I don’t think you understand what strategic essentialism is. In this case, it was used as a tool in the hands of skilled players on the field of identity politics, as elaborated in the discussion post-En Trance, with the provocation as much in language and speech-acts themselves.

“Like Fear of a Brown Planet?” I wondered. The the political intervention of the humorous, very light-hearted A/R, a gritty show with a smiling face, is in the performative act of saying what are to some, unsayable things – again. There is here a more serious question whether the ultimate effect isn’t lost on those audience members who found the language simply failing to align with their truth; is the alignment noticeable, recognisable when it happens? Notice the ‘again’: it is the iteration that matters, that sets down a possibility of a pattern, and that gets recognised. Without going deeper into a discussion that can get bogged along the lines of you don’t understand; it has never happened to you, which may be as correct as it is unlikely to make one any friends, it is hard to finish this point. 

‘Ian’ pondered: “One of the chief problems we have experienced coming here was the deeply normative tolerance prescribed by Australian multiculturalism. Just like the whiteness of the true Australian skin: always invisible to itself, denied, yet something for all to comply with, more or less, by degrees, for acceptance to accrue.”

I jumped in: “The mind-numbingly idiotic language…”

“I think you’ll find you mean ‘mind-numbingly essentialist’…” ‘Ian’ sighed.

Alright. The mind-numbingly essentialist language, according to which Australia was diverse because of the many cuisines on offer, the maintenance of cultural identities by the shimmying of traditional dances on Federation Square once a year, was taken extremely seriously, elevated into a sort of magical language for getting by in life. To anyone aware of how much more complicated cultural pluralism is on the ground, this was the equivalent of one infant’s babytalk imposed on all the kids in the kindergarten as the right language for that age. But here it was, an invisible, white language, neatly split into politically correct nonsense on the one hand, and bureaucratic proscription (“if you don’t like it here”, “we choose who comes to this country…”) on the other. All the messy rest, heretically non-compliant with our Platonically ideal multiculture, exeunt. 

Georgina Naidu, Terry Yeboah and Jing-xuan Chan. Photography by Naomi Wong.

This is why there was sheer thrill in A/R when acronyms FOB and ABC were discussed, points marked on the CHINK SCALE and nuances of being called ‘nigger’ dissected. It was both a reclamation and exposure (again!) of ground that was true, existing, and all but invisible. 

“All well and right,” Neandellus popped his head through the window. “But is there any formal innovation there? Is it good theatre?”

“It’s very good political theatre…” I stumbled and looked at my sensei for argumentation. He was trying to make a bed for himself under the table, and looked frankly disappointed with me:

“Performative politics – i.e. the politics are iteratively done rather than represented. Butler makes a distinction between performance and performativity. Its important not to conflate them. The formal innovation is in lack of denouement.”

“Performativity and performance. One that accrues and one that’s mimetic, right?” I was testing my argumentative powers.

“Yes”, allowed my spiritual uncle. “Sort of. It will do. Mimesis is out of fashion. Accrual is in. But the plateaux bit is important. No orgasmic endings. Just more and more plateaux and deferral of climax.”

There was nowhere for the conversation to go after that. We politely retreated, happy to know we had just seen a great show.

Guerrilla Semiotics would like to thank Ian Woodcock for his generous support during the realisation of this project.

Attract/Repel. With a cast including Jing-Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu, and Terry Yeboah. Music by experimental jazz guitarist Yusuke Akai. Sound design by Russell Goldsmith. Lighting design (inspired by Dan Flavin) by Damien McLean, with lighting concept support by Rachel Burke. Concept and direction by Ming-Zhu Hii. Producers: Nicholas Coghlan and Shalini Nair. Development Supported by Full Tilt Creative Development. The Store Room, 17 September-10 October 2009

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CITIES, poetics of life

Ghost in the Shell, and the fluid self in body and mind; recapitulation.

I don't want to offend more than I absolutely have to, so I will conveniently hide most of this sleepy ramble behind a LJ cut.

1. It is not only the cyborg that is the idée fixe in Japanese animation, or Japanese art in general. It is the disintegrating body, disintegrating mind. It is body fused with machine and mind fused with other forms of consciousness.

opening sequence (making of Motoko):

The most interesting point, however, is not the idea, but the way it is approached. Without drama. Without a sense of tragedy. The ending of Ghost in the Shell is by no means a sad one. There is a sense of hope and future in the fusion of selves that is entirely absent from your average Western understanding of the same (best exemplified by the puzzled disgust at the Borg).

2. For whichever reason Western us find the idea of a fluid, unstable self repulsive, it completely soaks the philosophical response to something like Ghost in the Shell in theoretical misunderstanding. Western critics find all sorts of pessimism in the ending which simply isn't there.

My objective in this semi-scientific quest is not so much to shake our preconceptions of the gendered body á la Haraway, or mount any elaborate philosophical castle where it doesn't belong. In fact, Haraway's cyborg theory has been most unhelpful in my mini-research, blurring the eyes of too many cinema theoreticians, making them interpret Motoko as a feminist body rebelling from the observing men, sexualising a rather asexual problematics. Instead, I am simply interested in the plurality of ideas on the self. That something seemingly so simple would be subject to disagreement: I find that too interesting to let go of.

On the one hand, I don't need to explain too much that we the Western peoples – particularly the hyperindividualist, say, Australians – find the very idea of the fluid self immensely threatening. There is a crossing of borders involved that is too frightening. There is Christianity involved, the indivisible and unique soul as a gift from God, and a unique body to be cared for and preserved at any cost (suicide being a big taboo); Western bodies are precious souls, Western souls are precious souls. But is it all?

3. According to Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An essay in abjection, the dividing line between the unconscious and conscious mind is in itself blurred, and therefore our sense of self is never stable. The abject is anything that reminds us of this instability, anything that disturbs order, blurs boundaries, creates ambiguities.

While looking around, I've found a whole range of issues that induce this border anxiety in the Western theoretician: rubbish, illness, and physical mutilation of the body; demi-human elements such as zombies and ghosts; puppets, in puppet theatre and otherwise; the question of inanimate objects coming to life, appropriating life force they are not meant to possess and this being a sin, the proverbial 'playing God' (Frankenstein monster); internet and cyber-bodies, the fusion of man and machine; trans-sexuality; mutations, from radiation and as an element of SF; clones as copies of the unique snowflake self, and robots as either copies of the unique self or a unique human species. Kristeva notes that a great part of this spectrum of the abject makes regular appearance in horror films, being frightening for its own sake.

4. A common offline narrative indicating boundary anxiety holds that Western bodies are precariously porous and under attack from outside by “germs”. These germs or viruses are ubiquitous evils associated with matter out of place, or untoward contact. They come from other people and overpower us when our personal or social boundaries are not maintained. This narrative has expanded to include other boundary violators, such as carcinogens, radiation, chemical food additives, and genetic modification.

One of the best descriptions of this anxiety complex is given by Martin in her study of ideas about the immune system. She gives plenty of contemporary examples of boundary anxiety towards foreign substances, reflected also in recent advertising campaigns promoting wars on bacteria in the household. The latter focus on children ingesting germs if bacteria are not “wiped out”. This indicates that barrier models of defence are still strong, despite reports of such anti-bacterial agents helping the evolution of resistant bacteria and impeding the development of the immune system.

-from The Online Body Breaks Out? Asence, Ghosts, Cyborgs, Gender, Polarity and Politics by Jonathan Marshall

5. In discussing our anxiety over cyber-bodies, cyber-existence and the fluidity of presence and absence of clear-cut individuals, Marshall writes:

“Western” cultures already have a set of “virtual body” constructions, which are complementary to our constructions of the “physical body”; those of the “soul”, the “mind”, and the “ghost”, all of which blend together due to their status of being “not-physical” bodies. The polarity between mind/body, generates the parallel of “virtual” or online for “spiritual”, and offline for physical.

Such a material/immaterial split is not essential, and many Western traditions have proposed more elaborate divisions of the mind, including the sources of mainstream religion. The Hebrew Scriptures distinguish nephesh from ruach, and the Greek Testament distinguishes psyche from pneuma. Both of these divisions are often translated as “soul” and “spirit”. Lullian alchemy makes the distinction between spirit and matter one of degree; matter could be etherealised and spirit concentrated. Mid Seventeenth Century philosophers such as Joseph Glanville and Henry More used examples of ghosts and witches to make arguments about the complexity of the multi-part soul’s interaction with the world. Such arguments seem to have become incomprehensible in the Eighteenth Century and later.

Other cultures can become more elaborate. The people of Zinancantan in Mexico have a 13 part soul. The Banyang claimed that humans are individually connected to animals or other natural phenomenon (babu) into which they can transform, or send out as an extension of themselves. The babu moves in a parallel ‘shadow’ world, the ‘forest of babu’, with effects in this world – making humans sick or destroying crops for example.

The point of this reference is not just exoticism but to illustrate a schema which could easily be applied to online experience, but which seems unavailable to Westerners. There are separate but parallel worlds, one is a ‘shadow’ of the other, part of oneself goes into the other world and behaves differently (perhaps more socially “irresponsibly”), yet we are connected to this other self. Tensions in one world spill into the other.

Despite such traditions, we tend to polarise body and mind, often while criticising other people for doing so. … A recent tendency is to represent minds as software, with the result that the distinction between computers and minds blurs. Computers become host to the realm of spirits.

-from The Online Body Breaks Out? Asence, Ghosts, Cyborgs, Gender, Polarity and Politics by Jonathan Marshall

6. Now compare the nonchalance with which the makers of Ghost in the Shell discuss this blurring of the one with the many, and the many with the panorama, in their oeuvre:

Ghost in the Shell does not have a definite chosen set, but in terms of street scenes and general atmosphere, it is obvious that Hong Kong is the model. Such a choice has, of course, something to do with the theme: on the streets there flows an excess or a flood of information, along with everything this excess brings out. The modern city is swamped with billboards, neon lights and symbols…. As people live [unaware?] in this information deluge, the streets will have to be depicted accordingly as being flooded…. There is a sharp contrast between old streets and new ones on which skyscrapers are built. My feeling is that these two, originally very different, are now in a situation where one is invading the other. Maybe it is the tension or pressure that is brought about by so-called modernization! It's a situation in which two entities are kept in a strange neighboring relationship. Perhaps it is what the future is.

In the midst of the profusion of signs and the heat of the messy urban space, the streets are remarkably chaotic. Passers-by, shouts, cars, all kinds of mechanical noises and human “sound pollution,” all merging into one, forcing itself into humans' central nervous systems through their ears. But why do people succumb to this “destructive” environment? Now that the artificial has replaced the natural, humans are like animals in the past, deprived of the characteristics of being human as a whole. Pulled directly into the whirlpool of information through the stimulation of visual and auditory senses, their feelings are henceforth numbed. On the other hand, countless mutually interfering and uncertain data pass through cables at light speed. This is the way informatics continues to expand its domain. Are people then like tiny insects caught in an enormous spider web? No, it cannot be. Humans are not tiny insects trying to escape from the web. It's not like that. In fact humans have willy-nilly become part and parcel of the spider web. Humans now have no idea of what their destination might be; they are like one of the silky-threads of the spider web. [emphasis mine]

Nozaki, Tohru et. al. The Analysis of Ghost in the Shell . Tokyo: Kodansha Young Magazine, 1995; from on the edge of spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Hong Kong's Cityscape by Wong Kin Yuen

The interesting side-note is that the fused, unclean landscape becomes in itself an illustration of the unclean, contaminated future. The atmospheric L.A. in Blade Runner was threatening by virtue of incorporating an overt Asianness into a city that was still collectively imagined as uniformly white-bred. This may be an aesthetic side-note, but there is a long history of urban 'regeneration', 'slum clearance', et cetera, in perfectly fine and functional districts of unfortunately colonial cities, due to this semiotic contamination. What we consider as exciting and vibrant now can, through the same set of lens, easily become threatening and dangerous. In both cases, there is a sense of leakage between worlds, of contamination.

7. On the other hand: But it is not just on this large scale of global cultural flows (particularly of technoscape, mediascape, and ideoscape) that fractal aesthetics are relevant to Ghost in the Shell. On a smaller level — namely, that of the body — the idea of the fractured body of the humanoid hybrid has been popular in cyborg films … Corporeality, as we remember, is one of the four Cs listed by Frances Bonner to delineate a general pattern of plotting in cyberpunk films, which emphasize the wetware of mutable bodies. For Baudrillard, the body is now an infinite set of surfaces — a fractal subject — an object among objects. In cyberpunk's hyper-techno culture, “the centrality of body” is paradoxically represented by “the fragmentation of the body into organs, fluids and 'bodily state,'” and “fractured body parts are taken up as elements in the constitution of cultural identities”. The cyborg woman warrior in Ghost in the Shell, following in this tradition, speaks also to the “emergence of cyborg identities” that is predicated on “the fractured, plural, decentered condition of contemporary subjectivity”. …

… And throughout the film, from the opening ritual of birth (or manufacture) in a feast of visuals dominated by images of numerals and water or fluid, to the later horror of the mutilated torso and limbs registering the monstrosity of cybernetic organisms, corporeality is closely linked first to the sea of information and then to the human-machine interface, both of which are firmly grounded in and contrasted with the background of a future Hong Kong cityscape.

… The monstrous, mutilated and deviant body, shattered by violence, comes close to Donna Haraway's notion of “regeneration after injury” for salamanders, though the “regrown limb can be monstrous, duplicated, potent”. … In a sense, the final scene of horror of mutation and the attempt by the “Ghost” of Puppet Master to merge with the “Shell” of our heroine is symbolic of the entanglement of “self and other within monstrosity and the parasitical relationship between the two”.

-from on the edge of spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Hong Kong's Cityscape by Wong Kin Yuen

This, I think, is where Wong goes astray, seeing horror where there isn't necessarily any. The ending of Ghost in the Shell is, if not quite serene, then certainly hopeful and buzzing with excitement.

8. Now compare the following notes on bunraku. Keep in mind that Barthes, Claudel et al. were exposed to bunraku without understanding the language of the text, or its cultural context. Empire of Signs is well-known for Barthes's declaration that the Japan in its pages is “a fictive nation”, “a reserve of features whose manipulation… allows me to 'entertain' the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system.” What this collection of quotes shares with the analyses of Ghost in the Shell above is the cloudedness of eyes: they say more about Christian understanding of mind&body than the relationships explored in the artwork analysed. What they do is depict the confusion:

Barthes’s reading of the puppet theater comes in “A Lesson in Writing” [“Leçon d’écriture”] (1968), later revised and incorporated into The Empire of Signs [L’empire des signes]. His interpretation of Bunraku (the nineteenth-century descendant of Chikamatsu’s ningyô jôruri that is still preserved and performed today) hinges on a feature of the performance that has fascinated a number of Western critics: the fact that the puppet is manipulated by three human puppeteers who remain visible onstage, while the voices of all the puppets are performed by a single chanter.

For Barthes, this visible separation of the puppet’s body both from its voice and its motive force shatters the illusions of the Western theater and the Western subject, laying bare the layers of the theatrical sign. The dispersed subjects of the puppets undermine the Western notion of a unified, whole subject. The Western dichotomies that constitute the self as this unified whole—dichotomies such as inside and outside, body and soul, and God and human—are now replaced with new articulations of body, voice, and will that expose the layers of signification and self. Speaking of this dissociation as a kind of Brechtian alienation or “distance,” Barthes says that distance is made explicable by Bunraku, which allows us to see how it can function: by the discontinuity of the codes, by this caesura imposed on the various features of representation, so that the copy elaborated on the stage is not destroyed but somehow broken, striated, withdrawn from that metonymic contagion of voice and gesture, body and soul, which entraps our actors. [emphases now&upcoming mine]

… Paul Claudel expresses the soul of the puppet as something dispersed among the performers, the audience, and the language of the text. He notes that while a Western operator stands above his or her puppet and pulls its strings, the Japanese puppet replaces this vertical geometry with several manipulators and a reciter surrounding the puppet. From Barrault’s image of a “heart to heart” union, we move to an idea of the puppet as the bright center of a communal consciousness.

-from From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater by Christopher A. Bolton

9. However, it soon gets interesting again, as Bolton dives into the actual history of bunraku, building on Chikamatsu Monzaemon's writings and the narrative conventions of nineteenth-century Japanese drama:

The most interesting kind of transformation in the puppet theater and the one that speaks most directly to the violence of Ghost in the Shell is the transformation brought about through death. A pessimistic interpretation might see violence and death as the inevitable tragic outcome of these social conflicts. But in the puppet theater, death is not only a consequence of these social pressures but also in some sense a willing transformation that reconciles individual volition with these social roles and expectations. For Jihei and Koharu, suicide releases Jihei from his obligations and atones for his failures, while it also represents a final consummation of the two figures’ love. They die in an attempt to respect or escape these obligations but also in the hope that they will be reborn together.

And so, at the end of Ghost in the shell: … She is neither Kusanagi nor the Puppet Master, but some combination of the two, alive both in body and on the net. This plural but embodied existence is figured in her voice. Barthes and others saw the puppets’ shared voice as a sign of the decentered self; but Kusanagi is able to regain her old voice, seeming to gather it up again from across the net. … But the voice more than anything signals a retention of her old self and a bodily wholeness, while the power to change voices also shows she can find herself in new places or transform herself in new ways. In this new (old) voice, she recites more of the passage from I Corinthians that was heard earlier in the film: “When I was a child, I spake as a child . . . but when I grew up, I put away childish things” [Warabe no toki wa kataru kotomowarabe no gotoku . . . narishi ga, hito to narite wa warabe no koto o sutetari]. In this passage that equates selfhood with speech, the Japanese translation of Paul is inclusive; where most English Bibles have “when I became a man,” Kusanagi says hito to narite: “when I became an adult,” or even “when I became human.” … If Kusanagi is a kind of puppet whose voice, weight, and story reflect a division between unified and decentered subjectivity, or freedom and fate, then this final scene also represents her as an independent subject. She is independent in the sense both of being self-sufficient and of being free. She is whole, but she retains an openness that allows her to define herself. Not closed, she is nevertheless complete.

-from From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater by Christopher A. Bolton

10. Tiny side-note here should get some attention on the generous acceptance of communal living, action and harmony in a great deal of Asian countries, and the liberal perception of the same as a kind of Borg in the West (saying “in the West” here is probably the most problematic thing I have done so far in this text, and I am not putting myself 100% behind it). What came first, racist chauvinism or the fear of bodily de-individualisation is the proverbial chook&egg problem.

11. In an interesting piece on social acceptance of household robots in Japan, Robertson observes:

The cute and catchy names of many humanoids — such as PaPeRo, Wakamaru, Posy, Pino, Robovie—also create an affinity to the “cute characters” who have inhabited Japanese popular culture long before “real” humanoid robots appeared.

The Japanese use the word “character” (kyarakutμ) as a categorical term for endearing cartoon or toy mascots—like Hello Kitty (recently reincarnated as a robot)—almost all of whom have distinctive and individualistic personalities. The ifbot (sic) robot, for example, is packaged with… information about its past, hobbies, personality, and so forth. … The term “character” has several meanings: a fictional or imaginary person or entity; a quality or aspect that defines the apparent individual nature of a person or a thing; and the inherent complex of attributes that determines the nature of a person’s actions and reactions. In Japan, humanoid robots like ifbot not only have character, but they are regarded as and referred to as “persons”—not “as if ” they were persons, but as persons. This is readily evident in the use of certain suffixes, such as kun (for boys) and chan (for girls and boys), which indicate endearment, familiarity, cuteness, and/or child or diminutive status. Thus, Wakamaru is also referred to on Mitsubishi’s website as Wakamaru-kun.

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

12. The meaning of the word “person” does not automatically include “human.” Generally, “person,” in both English and Japanese* (hito, jin, nin) means a human being. Legally, however, a “person” may statutorily include a corporation, partnership, trustee, or legal representative. A hðjin, for instance, is a juridical person. Moreover, “person” is also a grammatical category of pronouns and verb forms, such as the “third person” (daisansha — sha or mono is another Japanese word for “person”). To reiterate then: the issue here is not about personification, but about the person-ness of, or personhood attributed to, robots.

In addition, two key cultural factors influence the way in which Japanese perceive robots. First and foremost is Shinto, the native animistic beliefs about life and death. Monotheism has never had a home in Japan, and unlike the three major monotheisms, Shinto lacks complex metaphysical and theological theories and is primarily concerned with notions of purity and pollution. Shinto holds that vital energies or forces called kami are present in all aspects of the world and universe. Some kami are cosmic and others infuse trees, streams, rocks, insects, animals, and humans, as well as human creations, like dolls, cars, and robots.

The second factor concerns the meanings of life and living—life and fertility are especially celebrated in Shinto. Inochi, the Japanese word for “life,” encompasses three basic, seemingly contradictory but interarticulated meanings: a power that infuses sentient beings from generation to generation; a period between birth and death; and, the most essential quality of something whether a living thing or a made object, such as a puppet. Thus robots, humanoid and otherwise, are “living” things within the Shinto universe, and in that sense, are very much a part of the natural world. By the same token, the creation of humanoids— or artificial life—is not at all imagined as a matter of “playing God.”

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

Two side-notes: the famous mourning ceremony for broken knitting needles; and the Zen dissertation on life, in which the common definition of life is dissected and shredded to non-existence, like an artichoke, finally ending on this note: all living things grow, but so do crystals. Finally, the pronoun mono (the same of mono no aware), which can be used interchangeably for animate and inanimate things, including people. This in itself would confuse a Western logician out of its mind, as it effectively puts in the same basket subjects and objects.

13. Although “platform” is a generic term in robotics, it has a specific resonance in Japan in connection with the theory of ba, or place or topos. The concept and theory of ba (which is often used interchangeably with basho) is closely associated with the work of Nishida Kitarð (1870–1945), generally regarded as the founder of modern Japanese philosophy. According to Nishida, ba — he uses basho—encompasses a non-dualistic concrete logic meant to overcome the inadequacy of the subject-object distinction. He proposes instead a dynamic tension of opposites that, contrary to Hegel, never resolves in a synthesis. This notion of ba is also concomitant with self-determination: as Nishida declares, “a self-determining entity cannot be located in something other than itself.” Moreover, the place (ba) of dynamic tension and the self-determined self are always in an incomplete or emergent state. Nishida’s theory of ba and self-determination stand in stark contrast to the logic of “Western” rationality (and perhaps monotheistic thinking more generally), which is based on a separated self (subject), where an object is observed as definitely separate by the subject who occupies the position of observer. The theory of ba proposes instead that a living system lives and maintains self-consistency by the contingent convergence of the separated self and the non-separated self.

Nearly twenty years ago, Donna Haraway envisioned a posthuman future— the “cyborg path”—as liberating, especially with regard to overcoming a Western philosophical history of excessively dualistic thinking. Haraway’s cyborg is an individual who is neither entirely technological nor totally biological, and neither male nor female in any absolute sense. However, as I discussed in the context of Nishida Kitarý’s theory of ba, “excessively dualistic thinking” has never been an issue in non-monotheistic Japan.

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

14. I suppose the main reason why I've been doing this has been because I've been finding the idea of human mergers, in body or mind, not only suddenly plausible, but also quite attractive. That is, I would now argue that there are definite moments when a human being is not one and alone, but merging with the environment: when in love, of course, but also when listening to music, swimming in the sea, eating, feeling overwhelming emotions, not to mention crowd dynamics. I would also argue that there is, in a sense, that urge to blend ourselves in every attempt at interaction. There is, quite simply, a human merger in every friendship. In the hermetic solitude of our minds, we would simply go insane.

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