Consumption is not Culture

Anime is rife with consumption. Hundreds of dollars are spent on limited edition K-On goods. “X thousand hours of anime watched” is a badge of honor on people’s MAL pages. Whether fervent otaku or fansub watcher, both are paths to the same thing: consuming in order identify with a shared culture. I’ve done both myself, though after a while I couldn’t help finding them a bit…empty. Does spending lots of money make one part of a community? Does sheer volume determine how much one loves anime, even without understanding or appreciating its context? I think both ways forget that culture is about communication, not just consumption.

What is culture? Jeremy Rifkin’s book, “The Age of Access,” insightfully pins down how our answer to this question has changed. Traditional culture exists to communicate a community’s values and shared experiences. Traditional culture is preserved, and passed on; it’s also participatory. From folk arts to hymnals, it was something we did ourselves, not watched from our couch as other people did. Changes in the 1920’s, from advertising to recording media, let the Commercial Sphere swallow up the Cultural Sphere. These days, the idea of culture as a purchasable product seems obvious. Culture went from describing the “proper way of living” to “selling a way of life.” Commercial culture is about novelty, not values. It’s about selling the latest thing, only to be forgotten once it’s the second latest thing.

This is a global trend, but it’s especially strong in parts of anime fandom. Hiroki Azuma referred to the “database” nature of modern otaku: epic narratives of the modern era have been replaced by fragmented narratives of the post-modern, where meaning isn’t important. It’s just about combining and classifying. Instead of the timeless struggle between good and evil, there’s the topical struggle between what’s hot and not; say, yandere are in this year. Twin-tailed fox-girl yandere? Brilliant. Cultural meaning is abandoned for commercial selling. Of course, this isn’t limited to otaku entertainment (“Zomg, zombie steampunk novel? Epic win”). Of course, there’s always a place for empty, yet fun, entertainment. Even if K-On! is completely forgotten fifteen years from now, it’s still quite enjoyable to watch. But making it the core of one’s identity or value system seems like an empty (eventually not very fun) path.

But “otaku culture” is too vast to pin down so easily. The world of doujinshi is like a budding oak tree, a glorious resurgence of participatory culture. In the west, one might think of Comiket as all porn parodies, but that’s only part of it. Alongside the twin-tailed yandere books, there’s autobiographical comics, nerding out about military history, and political satire against Shintaro Ishihara. The values they espouse might be very bizarre to some, but they’re certainly values. With the cultural sphere separate from the commercial sphere, culture can finally be about what people want to say, not about convincing people what they want to buy. This is what I truly love about the fandom, out of all its tangled branches.

In the US, anime fandom is still mostly about consumption. Of course, we should support the things we love…my bulging Blu-ray and book shelves attest to this. But consumption isn’t a replacement for culture. Empty consumption, whether through the checkbook or BitTorrent, does not create community. And it can’t bring meaning to the empty spaces in modern life. The US fandom has problems holding back it’s participatory side, but it also has solutions. With the US’s vast geography, it’s much harder to have a monolithic central event like Comiket in Tokyo. But the internet and digital distribution can make that problem irrelevant. US anime fandom also seems to have some deep-seated racial inferiority complex: “Japanese people produce all the culture…we just consume it.” However, if culture is pressed into plastic wrap and sold at a super market, it dies. True culture needs to be a two-way street…or a thousand-way street. It’s about speaking, not just listening.