Schematic, Geographic, Psychological
The Japanese horror film Noroi: The Curse directed by Kôji Shiraishi
and the anime work of Junji Ito follow the horror trope in which a pattern or gesture emerges, first trapped in someone’s mind, then manifesting itself into the real world in a variety of compositions. In the case of Noroi: The Curse, it was an arrangement of knotted loops, knotted by hand or drawn unconsciously by the cursed. In the anime Uzumaki, it is an obsession with the spiral. The spiral begins to manifest in people’s hair, and eventually the way people are killed — in one case, as a body is
run over, it rolls over the top of a tire creating a distinct spiral.
In another series, The Enigma of Amigara Fault, people are attracted to a mountain with anthropomorphic crevices. Each character in the
story is drawn to the mountain to fill in the cutout that corresponds to their individual shape, which they feel is made for them. Within this fictional world these traveling gestures are first two-dimensional and schematic, then later they appear in the world as an obsession taking over the geography of one’s psyche. This reverberation from the schematic to
the geographic, to the psychological, can be used to describe a form
of narrative as well as a network of reoccurring signs.
In the examples of the Japanese horror trope, there is a fluidity to which certain gestures originate in the mind and reveal themselves in our surroundings. How can we interpret these gestures within their different contexts as they repeatedly appear? Obsessive and viral behavior can occur without a digital network, yet the iterations of such a vocabulary if there was one, would employ machinic thinking. The Japanese word ‘moe’, is a slang term for a feeling of affection, adoration, and devotion towards things that one cannot possibly have a real relationship with: fictional characters, idols, or inorganic substances. Japanese cultural critic Hiroki Azuma has written about a machinic interpretation of moe-elements within the cultivation of fan cultures around anime:
The organization of the moe-elements has rapidly advanced in the 1990s. The term moe is said to have emerged in the late 1980s, originally referring to the fictional desire for characters of comics, anime, and games or for pop idols. Since those who feel moe toward a particular character tend to buy its related goods excessively, the success of a project for the producers of such goods is directly determined not by the quality of the work itself but by its ability to evoke the moe desire through character design and illustrations. This tendency goes back to the 1970s, but its significance decisively increased in the context of the 1990s multimedia trend.
‘Chara-moe’ are the elements which characters, specifically in anime,
can be broken up into. For example, the maid dress attire or piece of hair sticking up like an antenna are chara-moe elements. These elements can be laid atop each other and combined in infinite ways within one character. The moe in chara-moe refers to each element’s ability to attract or generate desire. Perhaps we can extend this definition to mark affectivity or desire as a whole, not just ocular attraction. Maybe ‘moe’ could be expanded to translate as a unit of affectivity.
This ‘database mentality’ of characteristics or elements is the platform
from which fan cultures are built. Each character holds a specific ‘portfolio’ of moe elements which attracts a particular subset of fans. Combining these moe-elements causes an overlap of fan subsets. The combination
of elements creates a relationship between different fan groups. There is
a sense of modularity present within this system of creation, taking
cue from the outcome of possible overlaps in fan demographics. Each character, or more broadly speaking, each object is composed of individual gesture-units.
What would it look like to break down a derivative work based on its chara- moe characteristics and evaluate its worth or cultural importance on the criteria of dispersion and growth? This value assessment is more in line with the extent of a cultural object’s travel dispersion and audience overlap. Essentially it necessitates a theoretical tagging system for valuation, that incorporates attribution in its operation. The idea of chara-moe elements can be translated to understand cultural objects and their viral elements not as a linear history coming from an original source, as is the case and implication of simulacra. If the idea of a chara-moe database of elements were applied to culture and not just anime, we would see gestures as units. Perhaps using that unit would simultaneously register it, as a purchase would. Each use would be regarded as a transaction. An automatic ledger would be created to produce transaction-based knowledge about objects.
The demise of the distinction between the original and the copy has
also been the primary theoretical justification for claiming that the internet is not ‘about’ crediting. This is contradictory to the nature of the vast majority of information online being propagated by micro-communities. The assumption is that, because the internet is free, individual works belonging to a sub-community do not need to be credited when they are re-circulated — they can be borrowed, deployed and modified by whomever. This mentality is not just the case for images, but language as well––not just for funny memes, but for all culture depicted or created online.
Who owns anime? Does Japan or do Japanese people own anime?
In the case of anime, it seems that anyone who is contributing to or is an avid appreciator of anime owns anime. Likewise, contributors are equally capable of feeling culturally appropriated from once material has left
the community. Users and contributors within a community have ownership of the culture to which they contribute. Attribution or record of where something came from is not just about licensing but understanding the cultural history of gestures which can lead to more informed and interesting uses. The idea that something can come from nowhere, a random blog
or someone else’s Instagram unbeknownst to the person using it, is wrapped up in mid-internet days, a naive understanding of an ephemeral internet, perceived as some random void with obliterated authorship.
The reality of the internet today is that people within communities are producing derivative ideas, layering commentary on commentary, not machines producing photocopies in a networked void. So how can
we account for and properly attribute these uses which today begin to shape our everyday sense of culture and the people who produce it?
Conservation and Preservation
Conservation is predicated on preserving artifacts that are regarded
as culturally important. Yet placing an importance on a unique object
to possess the most value is based on similar ideas of the original and authentic to be contained within a material object. This point was iterated concerning the monetary valuation of art objects, but it can also be applied to the cultural valuation for conservation and preservation efforts.
For cultural institutions, what is it worth to have preserved something that is only a placeholder for an idea? In such cases, this placeholder becomes almost two-dimensional, the equivalent of a photograph of
a sculpture. Further, important objects of our time are not always made with the intention of lasting forever, or even for a long time. Maybe they are hardly even objects at all. Files last to an extent. The context for understanding an idea’s contextual placement in relation to other things — not just time period — becomes the most important thing to preserve.
But who will make this database of gestures?
There are times when we are unaware we are creating a ledger — that a database is already being cultivated. Often when thinking of data, the impulse is to track the behavior of users instead of using that technology to keep record of the cultural production of users, for the benefit of users. The scope of transactional data is limited in that it has only been viewed as a method of commodification or surveillance. Transactional data is not inherently encroaching on the privacy of individuals, it depends on the type of transaction being documented. Transactional data is not inherently surveillance capitalism. Such a perception is due to the overwhelming uses of transactional data for surveillance and social research to compile more valuable and organized data sets for marketing and politics. This process places the users’ own data in the service of other uses hidden from view — rendering it useless to the user. However, in service to its contributor, logging transactional data can also type of attribution (crediting), or keeping record, (for example metadata). Rather than keeping record of individuals, we can keep a record of things attributing contributors.
In The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology, sociologists Mike Savage and Roger Burrows lay out the “challenges posed to their expertise by
the proliferation of ‘social’ transactional data which are now routinely collected, processed and analyzed by a wide variety of private and
public institutions.”3 Commercial or private research uses transactional surveillance to automatically produce changes within their consumer interface. Examples include Amazon, which uses browsing information
to immediately educate the algorithm to suggest other products to a
user, or conversely, to suggest the product a user purchased to other consumers. Traditional methodologies within sociology are not responding to the modern uses of transactional data, methods which are abundantly used and implemented within the production of retail websites and privatized social research. Private research moves at a much quicker
pace because it uses transactional data productively, as it immediately implements an augmentation or experiment shortly after analyzation and moves at a ‘live’ pace — processing data as it collects it. Savage and Burrows “prophesized that digitization signals the demise of sociology as
a public form of knowledge. In their account, digitization, in spite of popular appearances, enables the concentration of social research capacity in a few well-resourced research centers, most notably of big IT firms.”
This concentration of capacity might explain why popular online platforms which collect, tag and analyze social data are able to cause a displacement of social research to few select centers. Those with the resources equipped for the central storage, processing and valuation of data at such a large scale and speed direct the uses of such research.
FUBU Distributed Research
Within the visual display of objects designated as culturally purposeful, art historian Michael Baxandall articulates that there are cultural terms involved which include:
The ideas, values, and purposes of the culture from which the object comes. Second, there are the ideas, values, and, certainly, purposes of the arrangers of the exhibition. These are likely to be laden with theory and otherwise contaminated by a concept of culture that the viewer does not necessarily possess or share.
The dissonance between the two terms can also explain the problems in the construction of an archive of online activity. The knowledge produced by the culture of users within a forum community or social network that
a digital object arises from, is often not shared with the arrangers, value assigning, and researching bodies contextualizing it. How might we understand an archive of digital activity as it was experienced by those whose lives we are examining?
Digital sociologist Noortje Marres suggests “digitization may be unsettling established divisions of labor in social research.” In regard to the labor of research within digital sociology, she provokingly asks, “If a multitude of people are contributing data is the data then scraped by social researchers compiled of the labor of those individuals rather than the labor of the researcher?” This question leads us to ask what it would mean for science to acknowledge the contributions of ‘non-scientists’ as meaningful. Such a consideration might problematize the status of social scientists’ or professional knowledge.
Several research initiatives employ the work of ‘amateur’ researchers who work collaboratively and collectively. Each person contributing snippets of information, or processing power. Perhaps we had a database that enabled us to track the sequence in which units or the chara-moe of culture we contributed to arose and proliferated online. This is a hypothetical proposal for use-units or gestures to be logged as a transaction, automatically as they are used. By using a new sign or characteristic, or in combination with a few elements, we immediately see its prior uses. Each whole object is always a composition of several gesture-units. The definition of a gesture-unit is constantly changing based on its use. The only thing immutable about gesture-units is that they can be called upon with the same name. Essentially, a link that never dies.
Philosopher Nick Bostrom, author of Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies, anticipates various scenarios in which a machine would learn, “A system might thus greatly boost its effective intellectual capability by absorbing pre-produced content accumulated through centuries of human science and civilization: for instance, by reading through the internet.” Perhaps we can re-organize the way we see cultural production by thinking of how we might teach a machine, the way a machine could understand it directly. What I am proposing might look similar to an architecture of neural networks to teach machines to read images and identify objects and actions within a landscape or scenario.
Transactional data does not just pertain to online browser-based activity,
it is also a record of action. Not just online, but physical actions which require interaction with the networked city. In the case of the anime Uzumaki (spiral disease), the spiral takes hold of one’s psyche, replicating itself within the world around us, it is ambiguous where it might have originated, the spiral gesture takes on a life of its own and forms the geography around us. Just as chara-moe fluidly moves from two-dimensional graphic to three-dimensional objects, the spiral graphic is not different from
the spiral created by a pottery wheel, the most haunting aspect is that
its viral appearance cannot be contained within the realm of fiction. Likewise this ledger could extend beyond image recognition to other sensorial gestures, fluidly.
Instead of thinking of how our everyday is becoming digitized, this hypothetical chara-moe organization of information about everything has already been employed in the networked everyday of ‘smart’ anything, transactional interfaces and our affections when interacting. All movements and sensations can be de-coded in some fashion within our mind or in our environment, as they leave a trace across sensorial interfaces. The gesture of a spiral is a unit that appears combined with other materials (hair, tire, death) and its record is already being processed in such a way for machines and other intelligence to read us.