Otaku Culture As Simulated Ethnicity

Postmodernism posits that our culture functions without any intrinsic meaning beneath it, but why has this state of affairs come into existence? The blame is laid on the consumer culture, or more specifically commodification, and mass media, i.e. mass communication technologies. Jean Baudrillard argues that our society is driven by consumption, rather than production. That is, human needs in relation to meaning and identity, or our nature, is not through producing goods but is based in consuming them. In the postmodern world these goods are not all economic ones, or in other words we exchange not just material goods but symbolic goods. These symbolic goods are imbued with social meaning and value, thus the meaning and value is not inherent in the ‘good.’ A sign or symbol gains it’s meaning by negation, it gains it’s meaning by contrast or through differentiation, this is what Baudrillard labels as the Sign System. This system is what dominates our world today, however it is not necessarily a negative thing. Through this system of symbols we can transcend or go beyond the mundane and the everyday banality of life. Through symbolic exchange we can base our interactions out of excess, rather than scarcity and material need. In this way we are more free to be and to do what we will, rather than basing all our actions on necessity and material goods and thus being limited in our being.

The phenomenon I wish to apply this understanding of meaning and human interaction, is to the subculture of cosplayers. Cosplayers are people who wear costumes meant to depict fictional characters from virtual worlds, thus the amalgam of costume and play. These virtual worlds could be from video-games, Japanese animation, music bands, television shows, comic books and so on. These people come and meet at fan conventions, with the conventions being anything from Comic-Con to Grant MacEwan University’s own Animethon, for a few examples. This subculture differentiates itself from a traditional carnivalesque event like Mardi-Gras or Halloween with the attention to detail in their costumes. This attention to detail entails in most cases building costumes from scratch, using newly acquired (and self-taught) skills such as sewing and related crafts-work. Whereas some would see these fans in a derogatory light, there is the potential source of pride in their craftsmanship. The costumes gain value from labor and consequently the admiration from peers. This latter type of value is what Baudrillard would call sign-value, and this signification outweighs the Marxist ideas of (utility based) use-value and exchange-value. While there is a labor component that elevates this play to an art-form, the real payoff is from the sign value. This is clear when we look at in terms of the exchange, the costumes clearly have no use-value, they serve no function necessary to our survival. The same is true if we look at exchange-value, because cosplayers do not intend to sell or trade their costumes to others. We have a different type of commodity, the commodity of images which the costumes clearly portray.

To dress as a character means to adopt a different persona than one’s own, this means the negation of the self. Some would simply call this a form of escapism, an escape from the ordinary, however in the culture of cosplayers there is a deeper interaction going on. Being embedded in a consumer society entails some interesting consequences for the participants of cosplay. The situation is one where the image replaces a character, and in this simulation the consumption happens not only in the adoption but by being observed; that is, to be seen is to be consumed. We have in essence a temporary commodification of identity, where we try to sell a persona to others, and those who buy are those who give us the prestige and admiration the perceived desires. Consumption of identity happens through the process of adoption of cosplay as well, in the obsessiveness the participant can lose themselves in the fictional role. Thus we have a fictional identity through the negation of our everyday one. This dis-embedding from reality is a simulation of meaning, where a system of signs with no substance are fetishized and proliferated through popular culture and the meaning becomes self-referential.

There is another possibility to explain the motives for cosplayers, and that is the reification of identity. By virtue of our social structures of capitalism and consumerism there is less room for expression, as expression doesn’t always have a rational or economic purpose. Fan conventions of popular culture allow a space –however marginal– for people to come together and negotiate personal meaning. Also the selection and adoption of a fictional persona usually is not arbitrary, but a reflection on the adopter. That is to say the adopted character has a trait that the adoptee identifies with strongly, and by portraying the character the cosplayer hopes to convey something about themselves to others. This would be the second order of the sign for Baudrillard where the sign points or reflects an underlying reality, however this is actually the third order of the sign. In terms of identity the sign (portrayal of an image) does not point to an underlying reality or identity, because there isn’t one. Through reification the cosplayer is attempting to make real what may never have been there in the first place, it is a reflection of desire rather than a state. However through the exchange of the sign in the approval of their peers, the portrayal comes to be real and signify the person themselves. Through the adoption of fictional personas, and the use of costumes, the process allows the person to mask the lack of the real and instead conjures up a real out of the social fabric.

The marginalized space of the fans, or geeks, the in-a-word, obsessed may also be consciously or not be performing in a type of resistance to the dominant culture. This culture is largely typified by consumption, and Baudrillard’s Third Phase of the Sign, which began in the era of the Industrial Revolution. This phase is one where mass-production has lessened the labor needed to produce goods, and as a consequence has cheapened the possible exchange-value of them. In response, people ‘piled on top’ values on certain products that denoted social prestige or status on the individual owner. This was the beginning of sign-value, which serves as a sort of adjunct to exchange-value, which ends up protecting or creating a new sort of ‘profit’ system. The profit is not purely quantitative and economic anymore, but has transitioned into a qualitative and social one. However the source of the value becomes freed or disconnected from the use-value, and derives it’s value and meaning in relation to other goods in the matrix of goods.

Whereas the pre-industrial age had goods that derived their value from good craftsmanship, or labor, the goods of the modern industrial age derive their value from demand. In the community of fans, i.e. cosplayers, we have a subversion of this dominant paradigm because they create their costumes usually from ingenuity and scratch. There are packaged costumes out there but this would not be a source of pride or admiration, instead it would just be something done purely for personal and frivolous fun. The ones who awe the onlookers are the ones with the elaborate, detailed and highly accurate costumes of fictional characters. One can only imagine the sense of accomplishment of creating such a costume, and the spectators can only imagine and be awed by the sense of commitment of the cosplayers. This subculture is subversive to consumer society because normally we get our goods prepackaged and already produced for us. However in these communities we have people who are doing it themselves, akin to the old crafts-folk of the pre-industrial era, by this action there is a creation of goods being produced by the bootstraps. Instead of waiting for a tipping point when their culture would be accepted fully and appropriated by the larger culture, and then mass produced, they are investing themselves into it directly and fully.

Investing oneself so heavily in the culture of cosplayers is a double-edged sword for reasons already implied. On one hand we have an avenue for expression and subverting the dominant and oppressive culture, while on the other we risk at the same time reinforcing the consumer society, or more specifically the fourth phase of the sign. While cosplay allows us to escape our society and perhaps ourselves, we are limited to an existing universe of (fictional) characters. In this way we are given a pseudo-choice of templates already produced for us, that is we have no say on what the choices are in the first place and thus these pseudo-identities are already alienated from us at the very beginning. Cosplayers are consumers of culturally appropriated products, indicating that our social relations are already mediated for us. This points to the danger of the fourth phase of the sign, a society that is dominated by information and media.

Baudrillard posits that through media or any form of communication, information is transformed and also lost. This is because the communication is not the thing itself, it is already a step removed. Not only this, but the mode of communication shapes the way information is conveyed and filters out other types of information. By these mechanisms the media, or mode, of communication becomes self-referential and self-affirming. This gives us niche modes of thought and communities where the ultimate outcome is that it’s expression becomes a type of advertisement. By the transferring of information, or image in the case of the cosplay culture we only get a copy of a commodified image. Ultimately this means that by donning the persona of the image, one becomes a walking advertisement for a commodity which only carries a sign-value rather than a use-value. These commodities are pure signs that no longer point to or reference anything except themselves. These are what Baudrillard would call simulacrum, a copy without an original. This is the state of cosplay, instead of it referencing an aspect of the wearer, it actually precedes them and creates the meaning within the individual by association.

The problem with media and specifically image in advertisement, is that it is cut off from full context. In the first and second phases of the sign, clothing served a function (use-value) and also would be representative of the individual’s line of work or social status. However in modern times clothing, specifically fashion, has become free-floating with no grounds in reality. This is clear with cosplayers, while elaborate and beautiful the costumes don’t signify anything themselves. It is a mask, a seductive spectacle to hide the lack of meaning underneath and to substitute for it, a hyperreal. This is apparent at fan conventions where it is mostly a self-referencing and self-affirming affair, isolated and cut off from the rest of social existence as if the culture of comics and virtual universes trumps the real one. For the fans that immerse themselves in the celebratory affair of conventions, they lose themselves in it. Fans get to temporarily enjoy the hyperreality of their isolated community with no conscious reflection or questioning, but rather instead a full embracing.

Paradoxically this is a result of the procession of simulacra, but also a wellspring for deviant or subversive behavior. The subculture of cosplayers and fans of geek culture partially reinforce some aspects of consumer society, but also allow room to dissent. Most cosplayers assume identities of characters from japanese animation (anime), but the very nature of the medium gives rise to resistance to dominant views of patriarchy, gender or ethnocentricity. Anime characters blur distinctions between masculine and feminine, for example, many male characters have beautiful or feminine appearances. This can and does result in female fans willingly donning the persona of the male character, the opposite can happen as well. Strong female characters are prevalent in anime too which can lead to questions of the assumed superiority of men within the viewer. There is also an assumption that the characters are Asian, however there is no way to actually tell by the anime character’s appearance alone which can help create a color-blindness within the viewer as well.

The imbued sign-value within these fan communities also by itself is subversive to dominant structures. In other words, the enthusiasm of the fans is strong enough to shrug off any negative feedback or connotations of their hobby. Not only that but their enthusiasm is endearing and contagious. In Japan, fans of anime and manga (Japanese comics) are referred to as Otaku [oh-talk-oo], which can have negative connotations attached to it. This is because the term can mean anyone with an unusual obsession that is not conducive to the well-being of society, and usually denotes someone who is anti-social. However in the West the term has been embraced by some, while shunned by others aware of the stigma attached to it in the East.1 While the value of the otaku or fan is derided by some, this is countered by the fan’s enthusiasm which is possible because of the support of the community of fans with the same interest. While the subculture of cosplayers and extreme fans is not consciously meant to be subversive, the subversive nature nevertheless exists because it is implicit in their actions. The culture of the otaku stands in opposition to Western society by exclusion or negation, it gains it meaning by its contrast (that it is not Western consumer society). It is subversive because it threatens the accepted value systems of the larger culture, the culture of utility, economics and rationalism.

The loss of meaning in contemporary society can be largely blamed on commodification of everything. To be more precise, capitalists appropriate different pieces of our culture or other cultures and try to sell them. The problem lies in the process, as they pluck the piece from out of its context and away from its roots. These roots are social in nature, and without them the meaning of the objects lose their referential base and become meaningless. At the same time these appropriated pieces are given sign-value and a sense of hyperreality to compensate for being cut off from their origins. Thus we have a colonization by the ideology of capitalism of all our shared cultural heritage. Japanese popular culture is just one example among many of being appropriated by capitalism and becoming a hyperreal, to be consumed and propagated by Western appetites.

The uprooting of so many of our symbols has created not just a general loss of meaning, but fragmented culture and consequently, fragmented individuals. This is because as these cultural pieces such as anime and manga are uprooted from their origins and marketed and then consumed, they must compensate through gaining sign-value. However sign-value is purely based on human psychology as what we desire and value is mutable. To imbue something with meaning, especially a community of like minded persons we must draw lines of exclusion. This tactic strengthens feelings of community in the case of cosplayers however at the same time it serves to strengthen the commodification of the sign. As one sign is uprooted from context and meaning, it’s value comes from the embracing of individual consumers, and the hyperreal arises. The value is social, and if everyone withdrew interest the commodity would crumble, in a sense. Cosplay by itself means nothing, it is through the fans energy and commitment that it gains any meaning whatsoever.

The hyperreal will become more dominant, the image and the spectacle will come to replace meaning. We can see this with cosplayers, the meaning derives from the accuracy of their portrayal. This is because the image or the replication of an image in all it’s accuracy is the focus, the more accurate, the more prestige gained. This means the person who created the costume must closely align themselves with the image, and thus become a spectacle. This spectacle being derived from fiction means there is no reality underlaying it, this is what is meant by Baudrillard as Simulcrum. The problem is that these individuals are trapped, in that they must uphold the image or risk the destruction of the image, the hyperreal. Through strong identification we have seperated or isolated people who become fragmented trying to uphold a fragmented culture. Thus we have the postmodern person, forever mutable and with no real ties to identity. This has ramifications of the culture at large, as it would mitigate collective action and even democracy.

In order for democracy to work, people need to be able to identify into a group or sympathize for a cause, or to state simply, we need allegiances. However with the example of something like cosplay, this allegiance would be mitigated as the desire wouldn’t arise or wouldn’t be sustained. This would happen because of our fragmented culture and our disconnection from meaning. We live in a society that is more free in terms of what we can do, and who we can ‘be,’ but we also have nothing but our whim to uphold our cultural interests and identities. This may be Baudrillard’s most important critique of capitalism and the fourth phase of the sign, is that we end up with a society of people who are too fragmented in their interests to create social change if need be. There is no community with the otaku’s by the very nature of cosplaying. There may be a simulated sense of community, however it is also strongly an individualized activity as the cosplayer is mostly concentrated on their image and personal passion.

While the act of cosplaying is a spectacle that transcends the mundane, and brings us out of ourselves we must be careful not to get too close to the fire. There needs to be a recognition of both the self-created meaning out of cosplay activity, and the inherent meaningless of it as well. Being embedded within a capitalist system means that there of course will be commodification, but the real fun is creating the commodification ourselves. We can play with images and meaning and try to sell our persona or costume to others, and through play we can advertise our own interests and influence others. Thus the exchange of values can spread insidiously, by hiding in plain sight in a sense. If the others are too aware of what we are doing, the game will fall apart, however there will always be others willing to partake in upholding the hyperreal. This order of the sign is playing with smoke and mirrors, but we must not portray the act of knowing or we risk the danger of the smoke dissipating.