The academic thread #5 | Anime DVD and placelessness

DVD_BreakingWallI’m now reading the textbook entitled Doing Cultural Studies, The Story of the Sony Walkman, edited by  Paul du Gay et al.  One key aspect of the Cultural Studies approach they highlight in the second section of the book,  is the importance of describing the economic and technical circumstances out of which  is born a cultural artifact like the Walkman, when trying to describe its sociotechnical significance.  After summarizing some of the popular representations of Sony propagated by both the company itself and various public actors, such as journalists, opinion leaders, technology gurus, etc, they set on describing some of the backstage aspects of its extraordinary development. The popular story considers Sony as a sort of economic and technological miracle, born despite the devastation endured by Japan, thanks to the extraordinary dynamism and tenacity of a young entrepreneur Akio Morita, accompanied by his friend, Masaru Ibuka. Their journey starts in a radio repairing workshop which they founded in an old building of Tokyo, and which progressively grew into a global pioneering high-tech  corporation. Often (apparently wrongly) considered to be the first to use a transistor to power radio receivers, Sony became renowned as a company behind some of the most significant technological innovations of the second half of the 20th century and thus, a tremendous influence on the cultural evolution of our societies.  From early on, the legend of Sony has been merged with that of Akio Morita, and to a lesser degree with that of his compere, Masaru Ibuka,  especially in the story of the birth of the Walkman.  The association between Akio Morita and the Walkman is so strong that he has been nicknamed “Sir Sony Walkman” (Sun and Daily Telegraph, 1992, cited p. 45), although, as the authors state, the identification of the true and one origin of the Walkman is impossible. Indeed, as shown by most serious historical and sociological research on specific innovations and inventions, there is never one single starting point to which the whole story of an object can be traced back in one straight line. And the Walkman is no exception. I don’t wish to go now into the details of the sociocultural matrix that has given rise to the various logic embedded into the Walkman, such as the idea of mobility as a way of life or “smaller is better” (aka “small is beautiful”) or the cult of youth, all references that were attached to the new small portable stereo player in marketing and advertising discourses when it was released in the public sphere (around 1979-1980).  But for the authors, this emphasis on the meanings that are attributed to an object so entrenched in our daily lives is one of the important contribution brought by Cultural Studies to our understanding of the processes by which a technology gets adopted, while other never even make it onto the shop shelves.  At this very moment, what interests me most  in their description of the Sony economic and technosocial emergence, is the role played by the company’s name and how it embodies the basic elements that made it a global corporation from its very inception. Indeed, this kind of approach helps highlight the constructed nature of globalization and the role played by various actors, both human and non-human, in this construction. The other reason for my interest in the case of Sony is that it is directly linked to the issue I’m concerned with in the frame of my dissertation, that is the role played by the DVD in the transnational circulation and reception of animes.

When Masaru Ibuka went to the US, in the early 1950’s,  to negotiate with AT&T Western Electric Division the conditions under which Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K (translated in English as Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company, founded in 1947 by Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka) would be able to produce its own transistors in Japan, he was extremely dismayed by the apparent enormous gap in the technological and societal advancement between the US and Japan. When he went on traveling to Europe, most notably in Germany, which had also been devastated by WWII, he was even more mortified to realize how much behind Japan was (or at least, he seemed to have perceived things that way. Whether that was actually true is another story). According to the authors, his perception was reinforced by the Western common sense at the time which deemed Japan so severely damaged by the war that it would never be able to be reborn from its ashes or at least to properly recover from its defeat. During these travels, Masaru Ibuka realized one important thing that would have a significant impact on the future of the company: English was the new lingua franca and its mastering would be essential for the survival of their new business. When he went back to Japan, Akio Morita and him set out to changing their company’s name into Sony.  It wasn’t done in one day, but what is significant here is what is in the name. Sony is a contraction between two words: sonus, which means ‘sound’ in Latin, and “sonny boy”, an American slang expression referring to particularly adventurous teens, which had become integrated into the Japanese common speech since the beginning of the US military occupation. Besides being a much more cheerful and enticing brand name than ‘Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K’,  it sounded like an English word, but wasn’t one, it could be easily pronounced by anyone from any language, despite the fact that it didn’t exist in any other languages.

In this sense, Sony particularly embodies the concept of mukokuseki that is used by Koichi Iwabuchi (2002), as a way to picture the process by which Japanese-ness is erased, at least on the surface, from products designed in Japan but intended for worldwide marketing.  Indeed, attempting to identify the origin of Sony, without knowing anything about the company and its history, is actually impossible. ‘Sony’ has an English sonority, but isn’t an English word, nor is it a word in any other languages.  It therefore  is place-less, coming from nowhere in particular, but seems to fit in any setting that was touched by Western modernity.  Although one can’t attribute Sony the sole credit for all the technologies that it produced, it still played an important and prominent role in their emergence and adoption by societies all over the world. Koichi Iwabuchi shows in his work the role played by the neutrality usually perceived in technical objects in the worldwide success of hardware made in Japan, and often integrated into Western-produced daily equipment, like televisions, computers, telephones, radio, microwaves, etc.  It is really only in the 1990’s that ‘Japanese-ness’ has began to be considered trendy, a phenomenon that some have attributed to the growing cultural influence or ‘soft-power’ of Japan.

Re-uniting fragmented audiences across the world

This issue of technological lack of any odor (mukokuseki literally means ‘odorless’) is at the heart of my dissertation, as DVD‘s constitute a technology, which by essence, seems to come from nowhere and to fit anywhere. The fact that the film and TV majors  imposed on DVD manufacturers a partition of the world into 6 technical different and incompatible format zones, only makes it even harder to identify the origin of this delivery technology.  The odorless-ness of the DVD combines with the apparent odorless-ness of many animes  to make products which seem to have no particular origin but  a vague place called ‘The World’.  This process has been in part illustrated by Anne Allison in her book Millennial Monsters, Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (2006), in which she shows how the  Pokémon franchise has been successfully exported to the US, and from there to Europe, as a fictional universe  entrenched in a modernity made familiar to Western audiences by erasing any national markers and a constant emphasis on seemingly neutral elements such as nature (Pokémons are animals, although of the fantastic type) and science-fiction technology.  Pokémon and other franchises like its derivative in the virtual worlds, Digimon, but also Yu-Gi-Oh, Naruto, One Piece, etc. were thus able to circulate through the worldwide roads of the entertainment industry, across national barriers, because they were in the end a mix of odorless references of which people are all aware in varying degrees.  In her view, all these narrative fictions tap into a common pool of myths, stories and ideals that have come to form a sort of globalized imagination shared by people exposed to similar experiences of what is considered modernity.

The general idea one gets from these observations is that of standardized products, coalescing multiple but place-less neutralized markers into a patchwork, whose superficial patterns is rearranged for each market, so as to adapt globalization to local contingencies, that is to national general audiences, which are often still targeted in terms of socio-demographic criteria.  This materializes, for example, in the way all Japanese scripts get erased from images of animes or covered over by the local language signs, or, how whole scenes get thoroughly edited to replace chopsticks and bowls with forks and plates. The fact that mostly only series portraying such commonly known characters as ninjas (Naruto), samurais (Bleach) or pirates (One Piece) or featuring seemingly neutral settings as the virtual computer world (Digimon), or science fiction stories such as Dragon Ball or Yu-Gi-Oh, find their way through the mainstream global roads of circulation is another illustration of this phenomenon.

However, at the same time, the audiovisual entertainment industry has been confronted with an accelerated fragmentation of audiences and consumers markets, as contents and the means to access them have multiplied. The tension between standardization and customization exists since the beginning of industrial productions (at the turn of the 18th-19th century) and has never been resolved, as Edgar Morin clearly stated in his work L’esprit du Temps, published in 1962.  But in the last 30 years, with the increasing autonomy of the modern human being, expected to make his own decision for his life and to take alone the full responsibility for its consequences, the tension has increased as new media institutions and technologies have emerged to fit these individualized needs. At the same time, however, the common sense wants it that no matter how autonomous and individualistic a person is, that person remains a human being, sharing some common needs and desires with the rest of humanity. In marketing terms, the human mass is made of billions of individuals who can be regrouped into sub-categories of shared characteristics, usually defined on the basis of national and socio-demographic criteria. The holy grail of marketers then, is to find the magical product that will be able to fit all these categories at the same time, that is to re-unite them into one single humanity. The Walkman is a result of this logic, trying to fit personal needs with a standardized machine, which pretty much looks and works the same in all the countries where it is distributed. But so is the increasingly general adoption of the binary code, seen as the language most appropriate for an always more globalized world, since it is based on mathematics and numbers, themselves considered to be the most universal system of representations. The resort to digitization in the media and communication industry was then supposed to bring all these contradictory trends together, as it would make it possible to reduce all communication means (sound, images, writing, videos) into one binary code. Such dematerialized packages of 1 and 0, dissociated from their traditional physical platforms and media, would then be transportable through a variety of interconnected digital vehicles and roads: transmission through electronic network (ADSL/DSL/optic fiber), wireless broadcasting (mobile telephony, Wi-fi), and delivery technologies (optical discs, hard drives). This, however, has resulted in a situation where the industry henceforth has to cater not only to multiple niche audiences, but also to myriads of end-users profiles, with varying degrees of technical knowledge and financial means to keep up with the crazy obsolescence pace set up by hardware manufacturers. Welcome in the digital nightmare! As Henry Jenkins showed in his work on how old and new media collide (2006), all the industrial actors are now frenetically searching for the magic formula that will lead them to the holy grail, that is the perfect product able to re-unite all these scattered markets of consumers and users.

DVD and placelessness

It is from this context of reinforced tension between the global and the local, the standardized and the customized, the public at large and niche public, that the DVD emerged. As any technology rooted in digitization, it is supposed to be part of the solution that will bring together all the consumers of the world around one artefact, capable of satisfying to a certain degree various cultural tastes and technological preferences.  However, not so surprisingly, DVD’s have rather tended to reinforce the public fragmentation since the marketing of its contents followed the same rules as for previous video platforms (use of the same genre categories and same rating hierarchy),  while at the same time targeting various types of users. In this view, one understands better how the DVD has been able sustain the emergence of public of animes throughout the world, who view these animated series as typically Japanese productions, reflecting not only Japan’s modernity but also its projection out into the world.  These public, like many niche public, are claiming a specific identity and relationships to media contents in general. Theirs is based on a sort of  understanding that Japan is part of the modern world as much as massive media content producers like the US, some Latin American and European countries, but also that it can contributes to our global modernity with its own cultural particularities. The DVDs and other digital platforms (most notably video games, but also the Web) are thus supposed to provide a gate to the fictional worlds created by the Japanese audiovisual entertainment industry.  In this view, the assumed neutrality and even place-less-ness of the technological elements that make up these optical discs play a significant role. Entrenched in the universal binary code, the Digital Versatile Disc (a.k.a. Digital Video Disc) gives an odorless access to a variety of contents in different forms and formats. Because the technical, even material aspect, seems to disappear completely behind the apparent ease with which one can manipulate a DVD, paradoxically, it can make the exotic features of the content more remarkable. Of course, this depends on the editing work performed by the DVD publisher. Because gates aren’t enough to give access to another world. One often needs a guide, and in the case of the DVD,  this guide is provided by the publishers’ authoring work, that is the creation of the DVD interface, characterized by a specific content organization in chapters and menus, and the presentation of various types of contents as well as the supply of several language and audiovisual technical formats.

And this consideration reminds us that technology isn’t as neutral as one would like it to be. In other words, the constitution of the various anime public depends in part on their adoption of the DVD as a gate to animes and on their responses to the authoring work by the publishers, who often release successively different editions of the same series. This is exactly what I’m trying to explore in my dissertation. My idea is, as I have stated in the last summary of my project, to identify the potential appearance of what I would call ‘videocinephilia’, that is practices merging cultural habits inherited from a variety of pre-existing practices related to home video entertainment and cinephilia, in response to wider sociotechnical changes that are affecting people’s relationships to media institutions, audiovisual productions and technologies, such as the multiple screens with which we are surrounding ourselves.  It is for this reason that I have attempted to reconstitute the genealogies of the multiple sociotechnological logics, the cultural meanings as the authors of the book say, that have led to the commercial launch and light-speed adoption of the DVD. These logics can be identified through the variety of discourses that accompanied the production and distribution of this digital delivery technology and with which people express their own experiences with it, as well as their expectations with respect to it. My hypothesis is that the DVD itself embodies the expectations of a wide variety of audiences and users, which I attempt to summarize under the neologism videocinephilia, but which I’ll probably describe along a sort of continuum of various characteristics concerning their tastes in audiovisual entertainment and their associated technical preferences.  For example, one of the first person whom I’ll interview for my fieldwork definitely appears as what I would call an absolute videocinephile, as he is both very picky about what animes he chooses to collect and the qualities of the delivery technology. In other words, he only buys what appears to be a mix of the best series and best DVD edition. He does the same when it comes to video games.  Others, with whom I have struck conversations over the Web, seem to place a lot more emphasis on the price-quality ratio of the DVD with respect to the series they wish to follow, but not always to collect. And at the other end of the spectrum are those who only want to keep track of the series as it unfolds, to follow it as simultaneously as possible with the Japanese audiences, but not to collect its episodes. These are apparently the most prone to watch them online, illegally if they don’t have any other choices. This kind of entertainment is practised as part of their daily flow or routine, not something to be kept for later replay as a sort of audiovisual background or memory.  From this, I also hope to derive some implications for the relationships that people entertain with the Japanese audiovisual entertainment industry as an actor of globalization. Indeed, the way people use the various technologies of access to animes highlights their more or less strong self-claim to be part of an international audience or public, to participate in the creation of what Arjun Appadurai calls mediated sodalities (1996), that is a sort of virtual transnational social place outside time and space, where scattered people get the impression that they are somewhat neighbours, that is intimate internationalism (B. Klinger, in J. Bennett & T. Brown, 2008: 25).