I invoke the Commonwealth!
I know what was in Orthroerir;
Orthroerir was in it,
In it, it was hoarded,
Hoarded, it was stolen,
Stolen, it was spilled,
Spilled, I caught it,
Caught, it was given away,
Given away, it stays my own,
My own is the Commonwealth
I invoke it!
The land may not be hidden from its lover.
Silverlock – J.M.Myers (1949)
John Myers Myers “Commonwealth of Letters” is an imaginary space carved out of the western literary canon by a fan of the classics. Perhaps one of the oddest sub-culture books of the 20th century, it was rescued from obscurity by science fiction fans who adopted it in a fit of mad love. It is still recommended as an odd treat within that community.
As proto-fan-fiction or fiction of enthusiasm, it situates its adventures within a space bounded by the enthusiasms it celebrates, and populated with the characters of the same. Amusingly enough, the climax of Silverlock’s quest is to emerge from a descent to the lowest levels of the underworld to drink at the spring of wisdom – only to be expelled from the space, back into the real world. A less elegant but analogous process would end a fan fiction about a fictional fan-space fanning over fannish things in a feedback howl and system crash.
Multiplying entities without necessity is an act of love.
Kio Shimoku’s Genshiken and Akiko Mizoguchi’s virtual lesbian yaoi-space are closely related “commonwealth of interests” propositions that attempt to impose a narrative onto layered readings of real life conditions. Both center around communities of play and imagination, both are minority reports, and both contest issues within these larger communities and their shared cultural fantasies, as they relate to larger “solid” social realities.
Genshiken to Otaku/Fujoshi to real-life current Japanese society as Mizoguchi’s virtual lesbian space yaoi-verse to bl/yaoi enthusiasts to current Japanese society.
Mizoguchi would probably protest that her theoretical space entails has a different project than Shimoku’s:
“My critical examination of yaoi begins with the premise that yaoi does not represent any person’s reality, but rather is a terrain where straight, lesbian, and other women’s desires and political stakes mingle and clash, and where representations are born.” (Mizoguchi 2010, see below)
Why does she give rats ass? Well, she likes the stuff, but doesn’t like the potential for less-than-nice depictions of gay folk to bleed over into the real world. Such bleed-over could (1) reinforce stereotypes in the larger community and aid and abet the pain such misunderstanding causes real life LGBTQ folks, and (2) This is a wild guess, but since she found support in the commonwealth of bishonen stories when she needed it at a young age, she wants to make sure the life preservers are well maintained.
So she is going to contest and encourage the contestation of depictions of gay folk in BL/yoai works, even though they are pseudo-gay fantasy characters made in overwhelmingly large part by heterosexual women for purposes that run on a continuum from escapist pop fiction to escapist pop friction. This urge is sometimes refered to by its N.American moniker when taken to extremes as “Politically Correctness”.
On the other hand, Mizoguchi is a citizen and member of the downtown business improvement association of the commonwealth of yaoi, and recognises its pleasures and its worth; she doesn’t want to break it. She is sensitive to and feels for the needs and wants of its sister-citizens. I am guessing that potential improvements have all been well thrashed over before in slash-space and queer-space:
Such typically include less negative stereotyping, more complexity and nuanced characters, more public health and safety awareness and the importance of agency and consent: less catching, more inviting, etc. Cultural differences between the slash-verse and the yaoi-verse make the details different, and I can only infer her concerns from her writings and footnotes. Her views remain necessarily complex, even quasi- ecological:
“My research is informed by Teresa de Lauretis who has written in relation to her analysis of the feminist debates on pornography (produced for heterosexual men). “Feminist analysis and politics have always proceeded concurrently with—indeed have been prompted by—the social injury suffered by women, but the strength of feminism, or what social power it may have, does not disprove that injury” (de Lauretis 1994: 146). In other words, de Lauretis suggests that neither the propornography position that pornographic representation occurs in the realm of fantasy, nor the anti-pornography position that pornography equals violence against women is entirely appropriate.
By theorizing the female subject as a complex amalgam of conscious and political subjecthood and private and psychoanalytic subjectivity, she has shown that the seemingly contradictory double movement is inherently necessary in feminist work on representation (de Lauretis 1994: 147)
As Judith Butler argues, theoretically a female subject is not restricted to identify with the female position in a fantasy scenario, but is also capable of identifying with the male position or the scenario as a whole. However, as the female subject always also functions at the level of social subject, she—who de Lauretis calls “Dworkin”—may not be able to secure enough distance from the pornographic text, since such a text is a public representation that depicts women’s debasement.
This double movement is clearly manifest in the context of the yaoi phenomenon. The fact that women have engaged in reading these male homoerotic representations as representing their fantasies for several decades attests to the efficacy of the theory of the psychoanalytic subject of fantasy; that is, the fact that the subject is not restricted to identifications with one position (usually equivalent to their own position in real life) in the fantasy scenario. At the same time, however, the fact that so many Japanese women continue to need male homoerotic representations that are significantly remote from their own reality (emph. added) also indicates the injury suffered by women. “
In other words; don’t kill the freedom and the diversity that is so critical to the empowering nature of the space – just try to nudge the canon to spruce it up a bit.
Then there is the issue of her proposition that yaoi is an emergent sexuality in its own right:
“The majority of yaoi women fans are heterosexual. Some might argue that calling those fans who are in heterosexual relationships in real life “lesbian” is inaccurate. Of course, they are not generally considered lesbians nor are they lesbian-identified themselves. But, if their sexual fantasies are filled with male-male homosexual episodes, is it still accurate to call them completely heterosexual?
A friend, a happily married woman in her 30s with two kids, told me, “Not so much these days, but until a few years ago, I could not really recognize sex with my husband as a male-female act. In my mind, I transformed what I was doing to the male-male act in the BL fictions”. Is it adequate to call her completely heterosexual? From the point of view of defining sex as genital activity, the answer is yes. At the same time, however, we know that fantasies are deeply involved in human sexuality. My friend’s male-male fantasy, which happens simultaneously with her heterosexual genital act, is as important as the act itself. In this sense, it is not accurate to consider her 100% heterosexual. In addition, I would argue that a person’s sexual fantasies, accompanied by her genital act with another person, a masturbatory act, or no act at all, are equally significant for the subject of such fantasies to such an extent that calling such fantasies “virtual sex” is appropriate (Mizoguchi 2007: 56-62).
Of course, at the most overt level, my friend was engaging in sex with her husband as “virtual gay men”, just like the male characters in yaoi narratives in her mind, but at the same time she was aware that the characters were women fans’ agents and not really representations of real-life gay men. Thus she was psychologically in the company of her fellow female fans in the yaoi community while physically she was with her husband.” (Ibid. Mizoguchi)
Hmmmmm sounds crowded in the bedroom!
Like the protagonist of Moso Shojo Otaku-kei / Fujoshi Rumi (Natsumi Konjoh) when our heroine gets interested in the guy she had previously objectified, she is unable to contemplate relations with him unless she adopts a yaoi-space derived “male” persona. (the boy, Takahiro might be more adaptable than she thinks: “I am shocked and appalled Rumi-san! – oh what the heck, the power of romance has won me over – gimme some sugar!”)
Contrast this to the Genshiken-verse. Kio Shimoku’s Genshiken is a reflection of, and a prescription for Otaku-and-Fujoshi space as much as Mizoguchi’s virtual lesbian separatist space is a reflection of a greater yaoi-space. Both are popular cultural products; though they sell in different markets I would even expect some cross-over customers now that Shimoku is creeping around in fujoshi territory. Both situate within the phenomena of their attentions as well; they “ride” on cultural phenomena that in turn ride” on larger cultural tendencies within the solid/ real world.
In Genshiken, the tropes of the “school club” dictate the story setting: the club has to attract members or it will be de-authorized. The club serves as a haven for outcasts with differing ideas and interests within the “visual culture” universe, within a real world of impending disenchantment and preparation for adult work life. Club members have to deport themselves with minimum standards of restraint in their own enthusiasms and respect for other member’s enthusiasms. Solidarity against outside threats is required; as well, a group-produced product for the larger enthusiast community and/or “outside world” is a stated group goal and measure of the vitality of the entire micro-social fiction. Of course, the odd thing about the Genshiken member’s varied fan interests reside in their one common perversion: they all have to one degree or another libidinized their fan interests.
Hmmmmmm… That sounds familiar.
The action in Genshiken lies in working out the rules of how exactly to deal with the natural urge to contest the space of a commonwealth. Myers’ commonwealth was a violent anarchy; Silverlock needed a savvy friend to get through it in one piece. Genshiken starts off as a male bastion invaded by rai-ju female desire, followed by a cosplay fen (archaic usage: female fan) and finally a horde of fujoshi. These in turn get a boy-girl who wants to share their interests, all while foreign fan-girls stir the pot and the old-guard otaku males get used as material for pairing fantasies. Only the promise of a safe space for their interests keeps them together. They try to work things out. We read about how they try. We gain comfort in the idea that such a space can be imagined. Then some of us blog, start Genshiken inspired groups at Universities, make lewd dojins and scurry around the web getting obsessive and derivative.
The Genshiken-verse is less overt or ambitious in its commitment to guilt-free
weirdness that Mizoguchi’s virtual-lesbian yaoi-verse, but the urges are somewhat parallel. Shimoku’s space is heteronormative, but strives for understanding. Misoguchi’s space is activist queer, and at times separatist, but it looks like it values a certain degree of diversity. (though I am betting that it privileges female diversity, as it is currently is %90+ female in Japan) Both stress the importance and fun of active participation in the production of artifacts for their communities.
In the past, human societies could only get worked up about and “contest” the space of “faith”: help build a cathedral, go on a pilgrimage or burn a heretic. Today, while it has been said that all roads on the internet lead to either pr0n or linux distributions (or cat pictures), the volume of nested commonwealths has expanded in a way that recalls bacterial growth, or the old commie joke: “you put three Trotskyites in a room – how many factions do you get?”
(This overload effect also refutes the worst fears of the Frankfurt School, and calms most of their radical-though-intolerant aesthetics. Nuremberg has been trivialized by rock concerts and home shopping tv – there is no need to ban epic poetry. Rejoice!)
The only side effect of this wave is that all of these commonwealths appear to pick up a sexualized charge the minute they wade into the world-wide webs.
When too much weirdness seeps out of fan-space, real solid-world authorities get concerned and start stomping around with big muddy boots. The big issue in last year’s solid-world Japanese popular visual culture community has been the Tokyo regulations banning “indecent acts depicted by imaginary persons” as championed by a right-wing populist politician who used to write porny stories about dissolute rich youth.
Meanwhile in China and Hong Kong, wholesale yaoi crackdowns raged through the latter half of the last decade, much to the shock of innocent Funu (chinese rotten girls), who just wanted look at the pretty cartoons and relax. As for the west, the potential for moral panic has kept most yaoi-stuff off commercial shelves and in shady back rooms: Definitely not on Amazon or your fave online e-book sales site. Besides, western fans are cheap-ass leeches who are used to pyr8 goodies, free fan-fiction and dodgy web scanlations.
Here’s a new space of contention: Pay for the damn stuff!
There is a whole body net-enabled sociology/ anthropology/ theory that peeks in on communities of enthusiasm: I recommend a glimpse at the infinite variety of the madness of fans at the Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) site. While the writing is of variable quality, the range of subject matter is far-reaching and interesting. Care to read about a tempest in a teapot at a Dr Who fan-fiction site? TWC has got it covered, although after a while all the accounts of fan-fights begin to merge into one another (meh!). My past-life experiences in the pits of fannishness taint my views. I was a geek youth in pre-internet days; shared its culture terms and rites, and carried with me the sense that whatever the future brought, I had already read about it. I even did cosplay, before it was cosplay – when it was the costume ball at fan conventions (only once, and the sad state of my costume lead to my discovery of FAIL). I bought and hoarded dittoed fanzines and fanfiction. All of that stuff got put away when I went off to University. See this fun paper for an expanded view of this kind of nostalgia I miss you [all] dreadfully!
For up to the minute serious contestations, don’t forget the fun folks at Intersections; who when not doing boring gender theory studies are always on the prowl for a weird new thing – especially when it is an example of local (mis-) appropriation of Cool Japan detritus, This one caught my eye:
On the Japanese Doll Complex – by Katrien Jacobs
“”On the Japanese Doll-Complex highlights Chinese people’s appropriation of Japanese dolls or doll-like alter egos. I conducted interviews with several people in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. I wanted to analyse the experience of ‘owning a doll’ or ‘identifying with a doll’ by looking at several kinds of doll fantasies and how dolls assist people in recovering innocence and gender-fluidity. Chinese men are massively into Japanese porn stars, into hentai figurines, or life-size dolls that have a convincing and arousing skin texture. They also manifest themselves as cosplayers or cross-dressers who want to embody pretty girls. Women, on the other hand, construct fantasies about gay love and they impersonate the beautiful and effeminate men of yaoi animations (Boy Love).””
Behold the documentary – You couldn’t make this stuff up!
Sex Brain Melody (Episode 2): On The Japanese Doll Complex
Embedded at http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue20/jacobs_film.htm
Also see her part 1 video on Hong kong pr0n panic: http://vimeo.com/3016343
On the Japanese original:
Contestation of fan-space is a symbolic libidinous exchange in its own right.
Life would be boring without fans running wild.