Cyborg Theory and the Otaku Movement as Depicted in the Arts

Introduction

The art world has long provided a venue through which numerous ideas and philosophies could be (relatively) safely explored whether or not the ability to develop such ideas existed. An example of this can be found in Mary Shelley’s popular and thought-provoking novel Frankenstein (Shalley 1993: 5) in which a scientist, working upon the arcane theories of previous scientists, develops an oversized creature pieced together from various human body parts found at local graveyards. While no one yet had determined what the life-giving force might be that could reanimate material, Shelley nevertheless wrote a convincing and heart-wrenching story investigating the concepts – scientific, philosophic, and psychological – involved in the idea of a human/machine combination. This concept would later become known by the popular term ‘cyborg’, a combination of the words ‘cybernetic organism’ that denotes some sort of organic/technologic combination.

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From its early exploration in Shelley’s work, through the scientific heyday of the 1960s technology revolution into the modern and postmodern world, the concept of the cyborg has continued to fascinate authors of science fiction as well as scientists and philosophers.

As it has been developed and explored, primarily within the art world, numerous conceptions have emerged regarding the relative benefits or limitations of a broad movement toward a cyborg future. To fully understand these presentations, then, it is necessary to understand the various theories that have contributed to the cyborg conception before examining how it is used to influence, entertain or educate various audiences.

To illustrate how the cyborg theory is represented in the postmodern world, the emergence of the Otaku Movement will be examined as well as the work of Mariko Mori and Takashi Murakami as favorite artists within this movement.

The Cyborg Theory

The first use of the term cyborg to refer to a man and machine combination was brought forward by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960 as a possible solution to specific issues encountered in space travel (Orbaugh 2006: 16). In this vision, the human body would be medically altered and equipped to have better chances of surviving extra-terrestrial environments, thereby linking it with the concepts of colonization and conquest as well as with the concept of ‘perfecting’ the flawed creation of nature. The cyborg was seen as a better, stronger, faster creation than the natural human that would be more capable of defeating any environment it might find itself in, thereby associating itself with masculine concepts and associations and reinforcing the historical gender associations found in most countries throughout the world (Cook 2004: 32). In this sense, the concept of the cyborg can be seen as a continuation of a discussion that had been taking place in the science fiction and literature of the previous century finally making its transition into ‘respectable’ scientific consideration.

However, the cyborg has also been envisioned as a means of overcoming the various dichotomies that have long plagued human existence and placed limits upon the potential, primarily, of females. This idea was first explored by Donna Haraway but has since been shown to be a paradox; both proving the cyborg’s ability to transcend such definitions as male/female, mind/body, or human/machine as well as its dependence and reinforcement of such ideas (Cook 2004: 32). The reinforcement of these traditional ideas is inherent within the metaphors and language itself, having established itself along these lines to such an extent that the implications are no longer even recognized. Haraway’s concepts are compared with the Extropian vision of technology as the answer to humanity’s next evolutionary jump, each attempting to recreate the binary oppositions present in historical conceptions of Cartesian Christianity, modernity, and Western conceptions of gender roles into a more positive, utopian ideal (McComick 2002:23).

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Yet all of these above conceptions fail to take into account the potential controlling aspect of such ideas.

With experiments such as Kevin Warwick’s chip implantation, in which the scientist embedded a computer chip in his arm and used it to control such external objects as turning on the lights in his home, opening doors, and so forth, the potential for a higher degree of control than has ever been realized emerges as every movement made by the scientist was recorded and repetitious actions were identified (Warwick 2002: 32).

“Therefore, in the paradoxical makeup of the cyborg, cyborg technologies can be the ultimate form of oppression, while also embracing the ethos of liberation.” (Haraway 2002: 17) In addition, as technology continues to advance, and more and more people become involved in various concepts and implementations of cyborg technology, the levels of control, oppression, and other possible repercussions remain completely unknown.

The Otaku Movement

The Otaku movement has evolved in Japan as the result of the fast technology and IT development, increased search speed, and access to information. It is a combined product of computerization and consumerism. The term “Otaku” is used to refer to young people that have gained extensive computer knowledge, usually not in a classroom setting. The primary use for their knowledge and skills lies in searching, finding, acquiring as much data as possible on some particular aspects of the existing pop culture.

“Otaku” translates into English as a polite form of “your home” or “you”. The term appeared in the 1980s due to the emerging internet technologies that allowed you to gain access to any information from your computer without the need to ever leave the house. The term was initially used to describe young people that had expressed interest in the pop-culture, anime, or computer games. However, it soon acquired a negative connotation when in the late ‘80s Tsutomu Miyazaki, obsessed with computers and leading a loner lifestyle murdered four little girls and was labeled “otaku” by the raging mass media (Hauser 2004: 17).

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In some ways, otaku could be compared to hackers, but in comparison to hackers, otaku is usually preoccupied with only one particular product of the popular culture (comic book otaku or pop-star otaku, etc.) (Sefton-Green 1998: 34).

Those who belong to the Otaku movement become psychologically sequestered living under the illusion that the technology allows them to continuously expand their community of online friends, to feel as if they have the whole world at their fingertips, to substitute real-life relationships with online relationships (Gauntlett 2003: 15).

“They are easily visible because they don’t care about the way they dress. They talk differently and look to the ground while talking face-to-face. They are not into physical activities, they are chubby or thin, but not fit, never tanned… Computer game programmers live on potato chips that they eat with chopsticks, and on coffee milk. They have a different rhythm, are awake for 40 hours and then sleep for 12”, – this is a description given to otaku by the journalist Kyoichi Tsuzuki (quoted in Grassmuck 1990: 43).

The main concern that rises at the emergence of this new cyberculture is that the otaku is the complete opposite of what Japanese people traditionally should be like. They represent not just a subculture, but a new race, a new species of human beings (Sefton-Green 1998: 32).

Modern sociologists, media experts, and computer–culture theorists believe the otaku movement to be a newly developed stage of human life, and the representatives of the otaku movement – the new human species. The research done by Sherry Turkle, a computer-culture expert, indicates that “the citizens of (otaku) cyberculture have a radically new, postmodern sense of self, the multiple windows that can be opened simultaneously and toggled back and forth on their computer screens providing the perfect metaphor for their non-unitary psyches” (Sefton-Green 1998: 32).

Mariko Mori

Born in 1967 in Tokyo, Japan, Mariko Mori are a Japanese video and photographic artist. While studying at Bunka Fashion College, she worked as a model which highly influenced her early works, such as Play with Me. Her work utilizes the latest technologies and often is expensive to produce. The most popular topic of her works is the combination of Eastern traditions and Western influence with the extensive use of photography and digital imaging.

One of her earliest and most famous works is “The Birth of a Star” (1995: 23) where Mori depicts herself in a schoolgirl vinyl costume with oversized headphones on her head. Her look is playful and carefree, around her float multi-colored balloons. She peers at the world around her through blue eye lenses with a winsome smile. Thus, in this seemingly pop-culture-inspired work, Mori creates a contemporary, technology-inspired type of cyborg. While a traditional cyborg is a hybrid of a mechanism and a living being, a creature of fiction and creature of real-life at the same time, Mori’s cyborg version of herself is a hybrid of fiction and contemporary conceptions of femininity inspired by the existing Japanese pop culture (Schreiber, 1999). The image also contradicts the traditional idea of a Japanese woman presenting her as a perfect blend of Eastern beliefs and Western influence.

In one of her interviews, when asked why women in her works appear to be happy, Mariko Mori replied that they are happy because they are cyborgs, not women. To continue the theme of women and cyborgs, the theme that blends the traditional and controversial, Mori creates Tea Ceremony III (1994), Play with Me (1995: 34), and Subway (1994: 51).

Here, unorthodox elements are added to the traditional feminine roles in society to assess and critique the status of women in Japanese society. For instance, in Tea Ceremony III (1994), Mori is wearing a blue dress and a white wig offering tea amid a busy street to the men walking by. The different lighting used for the figure of Mori evidence that she was digitally added to the picture, and thus her traditional gesture of female subjection cannot be noted by the passing men.

The idea of the cyborg is evident in many other Mori’s works. In her Empty Dream (1995), she depicts four figures of herself on a digitally composed background of Japan’s largest indoor man-made beach. A similar situation in the real-life would be impossible, which brings up the idea of a cyborg. Here, she is also continuously attached to the pop culture appearing in the background of the environment that represents the accomplishments of the technological process.

Another cyborg can be found in Mori’s work Beginning of the End (1996) where a person is positioned inside a capsule amid a busy Tokyo street. A human being floating inside a technological device representing either a safe place to hide from the surrounding environment or a means of transportation, in any case, this cyborg is represented as an integral part of the hi-tech urban life of Tokyo.

Throughout the entire scope of her work, Mori extensively uses self-portraits, as well as digital images of cyborgs to address the question of how technology relates to the identity and identity roles in the contemporary hi-tech society. She examines the roles of women not only in society itself but also in the relation to the new technologies and opportunities and challenges they offer.

Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami was born in 1962 in Tokyo, Japan. He works in both fine arts media and digital and commercial media. The main themes of his art are taken from pop culture, these ideas are later turned into sculptures, “Superflat” painting, as well as commercial products, such as t-shirts, mousepads, and phone caddies.

He received a doctoral degree in Nihonga, a style of art that combines Western and Eastern styles that appeared in the 19th century. Soon, due to the increased popularity of anime and manga, Murakami became interested in otaku culture as he believed it to represent contemporary Japanese society in many ways.

Murakami developed a new artistic style called “Superflat” characterized by reflections on otaku lifestyle and culture, modern consumer society, and sexual fetishism.

The signature works of Murakami are Hiropon and My Lonesome Cowboy. Hyropon is a sculpture made of fiberglass and depicts an anime-type female with extremely large breasts and a bikini top that does not cover the breasts appropriately. The female is squeezing her right nipple, and the stream of milk flowing from the breast extends behind her back to the left nipple squeezed by the other hand. This stream of milk reminds me of a jump rope.

My Lonesome Cowboy depicts a completely nude male that holds his erected penis in his hand ejaculating a stream of semen above his head to form a lasso.

Both works provide the author’s viewpoint of Japanese anime and their expressively distinct sexual content, they also represent results of the overwhelming Western influence and changing behaviors of the Japanese society to correspond to the newly developing trends.

Just like the very first cyborg in history – Frankenstein – My Lonesome Cowboy and Hyropon represent oversized cyborg models inspired by the postmodern world; put together from various fragments of Eastern and Western pop cultures. They at the same time contradict and empower the traditional roles, and by this create a basis for future dialogue.

In his usage of the elements of popular culture, cartoons, and animations, Takashi Murakami, reflects the Japanese identity influenced by and developed in the environment of the consumerist culture. The characters in his works represent the fictional cute cartoon-inspired creations and yet simultaneously define the aspects of the real world, just like true cyborgs.

Conclusion

The artwork presentation of the two above-mentioned artists indicates that the art in the postmodern world has acquired new media for the expression and experience of the ideas not existing in the real world, and yet inseparably connected to the phenomena of contemporary societies. The modern artists find their inspiration in both widely known and utilized ideas, such as the cyborg theory and its historic developments in art and literature, and newly developed experiences that result from the technological progress and ever-growing global computerization, such as the otaku movement of Japan and its existing equivalents in other countries.

The contemporary cyborgs may not have such distinctive cyborg characteristics as the cyborgs of the past (Frankenstein); however, they still represent the same blend of fiction and reality, one often merging with another. They might not seem to be as frightening as cyborgs of the past, and yet the potential hazards they hold within may surpass the common physical superiority of the Frankenstein and lead to consequences that are to be discovered by the coming generations.

References

Bell, D., Loader B., Pleace N., & Schuler D. 2004. Cyberculture: The Key Concepts. Routledge, New York.

Benson, Ri. 2003. Urban Tribes. Geographical, 32, pp19-23. Cook, P. 2004.

“The Modernistic Posthuman Prophecy of Donna Haraway.” Centre for Social Change Research. Paper presented to the Social Change in the 21st Century Conference. Queensland University of Technology.

Darling, M. 2001. Plumbing the Depths of Superflatness. Art Journal 60, no. 3, pp 34-37.

Gauntlett, D. 2003. Japanese Cybercultures. Routledge, New York.

Gray, C. 2002. Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age. Routledge, New York.

Higa, K. 1996. Some Thoughts on National and Cultural Identity: Art by Contemporary Japanese and Japanese American Artists. Art Journal 55, no. 3, pp 29-33.

McCormick, B. 2002. “The Island of Dr. Haraway.” Environmental Ethics. Vol. 22, pp 409-418.

Mcveigh, B. 2003. “2 Individualization, Individuality, Interiority, and the Internet”. In Japanese Cybercultures. Routledge, New York.

Orbaugh, S. 2006. “Frankenstein and the Cyborg Metropolois.” Cinema Anime. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Panicelli, I. 1999. Mariko Mori. Artforum International, October, p 152.

Shelley, M. 1993.

Frankenstein. Barnes and Noble Books, New York.

Schreiber, R. 1999. Cyborgs, Avatars, Laa-Laa and Po: The Work of Mariko Mori. Afterimage 26, no. 5, pp 10-11.

Sefton-Green, J. 1998. Digital Diversions: Youth Culture in the Age of Multimedia. UCL Press, London.

Tatsumi, T. 2002. The Japanoid Manifesto: Toward a New Poetics of Invisible Culture. The Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no. 2, pp 12-14.

Warwick, K. 2002. I, Cyborg. Century, London.

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