Structure and Power (1983)

In 1983, at age 26, Kyoto University assistant professor Asada Akira published a book called Structure and Power: Beyond Semiotics 『構造と力―記号論を超えて』 — a dense examination into the post-modern and post-structuralist philosophy of late 20th century European thinkers. Asada described the work to the New Left Review as Japan’s “first systematic introduction of certain strands in French philosophical thought, starting with a consideration of Lacan and Althusser, and then moving on to an account of Deleuze and Guattari, whose rather crazy re-reading of Marx I enthusiastically set to work in an analysis of contemporary capitalism — especially its patterns of consumption.” Not exactly light reading.

Yet the uncompromisingly-theoretical work moved nearly 80,000 copies in its first few weeks and later went on to be a best-seller with over 150,000 copies sold. The young, bespectacled author — seen here on TV in 1986 explaining the “world of mathematical simulation” — became an overnight media sensation and launched a wider “boom” for intellectual thought called New Academism (ニュー・アカデミズム).

While Japan still today experiences substantial consumer demand for intellectual and pseudo-intellectual books (e.g. multimillion-seller The Dignity of a Nation), Structure and Power‘s mass popularity was a surprise at the time, and when viewed through the prism of 21st century Japanese society, a complete mystery. Compare the book to, say, the best-seller of 2007: Koizora 『恋空』, the yankii confessional “mobile phone novel” written in ultra-simplistic language with heavy dollops of melodrama. Back in the early 1980s, however, Japan’s youth consumers looked to shopping building PARCO’s progressive and internationalist aesthetic worldview, one in which Asada’s European post-structuralist critique made a natural fit. These days works like Structure and Power could not find an adequate consumer context, with the exception of Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

My PARCO association is not meant to be pejorative. Asada himself explicitly understood the connection between his book and the “Saison Culture” of PARCO’s godfather — Tsutsumi Seiji of Seibu. In his interview with New Left Review, Asada mentioned Tsutsumi’s business as a reason for Structure and Power‘s success:

In the course of the Eighties, Baudrillard became a popular author in Japan, and his ideas were taken up in some unexpected circles. For example, the owner-manager of the Seibu department store, Tsutsumi Seiji, a versifier himself, adopted an explicitly Baudrillardean marketing strategy for his enterprise, renaming his (company) Saison, lecturing stock-holders on the role of simulacra in his business and cultivating parodic advertising styles. He set a trend at a time when Japanese capitalism was coming out of the depressive Seventies, and needed to activate consumption with a certain semiotic mise-en-scène. In this kind of context, there was a predisposition to read an introduction to post-structuralism as a welcome-mat for over-consumption. To the extent that I also dealt with contemporary trends in Japanese society, you could say the object of my analysis tended to recuperate it.

Certainly Asada did not mean to make the book into a runaway bestseller, but he perhaps understood during its writing that the unique era could turn Structure and Power into a consumerist object.

In her essay “Critical Texts, Mass Artifacts: The Consumption of Knowledge in Postmodern Japan” (Postmodernism and Japan, 1989), scholar Marilyn Ivy admits that Asada’s difficult work was likely “consumed” as an object more than its contents were actually digested. She writes, “Many people bought Asada’s text and read only the preface and the chart at the end of the book.” She defends this “fragmented reading,” however, as being in line with Asada’s own instructions: the young philospher wanted to liberate knowledge from its institutional roles and turn it into a form of play. Despite this, Ivy cannot completely dismiss the idea that Asada’s phenomenon may have been at least partly superficial. She considers the debate of Japanese critics at the time of whether Asada’s book became popular as an easy-access catalog to modern philosophy, paralleling the consumer instructions of Tanaka Yasuo’s novel Nantonaku, Crystal, or whether Structure and Power was popular precisely because everyone saw something stylish in its rhetorical difficulty.

There is no question that Structure and Power was a stylish product in 1983, but more vexing is the larger query on whether readers actually comprehended the dense text. Did the sudden widespread interest in Deleuze and Guattari actually change the nature of Japanese thought and culture? Aforementioned otaku scholar and postmodern critic Azuma Hiroki is highly skeptical that the book had a lasting impact: “In Japan, [post-modern theory] was acclaimed outside universities in the mid 1980s as a fashionable mode of thought for the younger generation, but then subsequently forgotten together with the era. […] What is important here is not really the content of the theories of postmodernism but the fact that in Japan this highly complex body of thought turned into a kind of faddish media frenzy.” This would fit the pattern of most Japanese booms, in which consumers adopt products with unprecedented speed and then abandon them just as quickly in order to move on to something else. Critics and trendspotters love to claim deep human needs that drive the embrace of a new signifier or style (“This interest in military wear must be tied to female empowerment!” etc.) but in most cases, consumers buy a new product for its social value — i.e., the fact that everyone else has it — rather than its inherent qualities or content. This is not unique to Japan by any means, but the orderliness of trend adoption in the Japanese consumer market makes it very conspicuous. Structure and Power was a fad of sorts, and faddish buying behavior likely tapered the book’s impact on the Japanese consciousness. But moreover, even when readers were serious about the content, the theoretical abstractness of Asada’s writing inhibited the degree to which readers could “use” or replicate the ideas in their daily lives.

Even if the work can attribute its high sales to a consumer trend, Asada’s stardom was certainly not a fluke. The popularity of Structure and Power in 1983 well demonstrates the degree to which the elite tier of Japanese society — mostly upper-middle class college-educated Tokyo-based white-collar workers or those on their way to being part of that class — almost completely controlled the bully pulpit of proper consumerism. The Japan of today is much more democratic. Consumer culture and media have finally spread to all corners of the Japanese experience, and as a more honest representation of the population distribution, we have seen time and time again that non-urbane values win a democratic plurality in most markets. Unabashed yankii/gyaru magazines Popteen and Koakuma Ageha(which well codify the values of lower middle-class, non-Tokyo Japanese) top circulation lists and are vastly more popular than snobby style bibles like Brutus or Spur. A book that tackles similar topics to Asada’s breakout first work, even with high sales, would surely be drowned out in the wider culture today by Koizora and its lot. PARCO’s über-sophisticated “Saison Culture” had disproportional and highly centralized power in the 1980s. Their trend-setting advice was not just for a specific group but voiced with a broad authority. In 1983, there were few magazines and shopping centers with countervailing cachet to the elite institutions (much like Shibuya109 functions today), and of course, the most influential cultural powers had logical business rationale for targeting upper-middle class consumers: This was the group with the highest disposable incomes. Structure and Power is a book that only appealed to this limited group, and the fact that it could become a wider “phenomenon” suggests that the college-educated were at the helm of Japanese pop culture.

Like other great artists and intellectuals who have been swept into the superficial pageant of celebrity, Asada eventually was able to break free and settle into a quieter position of academic gravitas. The work’s consumer success, however, most likely made a positive impact on Asada’s position within the Ivory Tower. He was a rising star and revered genius in smaller circles before his work became a hit, but this early fame cemented his place as one of Japan’s most important scholars. Structure and Power‘s moment in the sun was in hindsight a historical anomaly, never repeated with the same fanfare for similar cases. But we should not ignore it as an outlying event. The entire phenomenon bookmarks a specific page in the story of Japanese pop culture, a brief moment when consumer culture and academic theory shared the same Zeitgeist.

W. David MARX
May 6, 2011

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

14 Responses

  1. M-Bone Says:

    Fits with the critiques of Eagleton and Habermas (and even Chomsky): that the Foucault – Lacan phase of postmodern fashion in American academia and student culture was part of a narcissistic departure from political engagement and an acquiescence to neo-liberal views of the university as a place to give young people a consumption vacation (think and drink) before they join the managerial elite.

    Is Koizora the best choice of a present counter-example? 超訳 ニーチェの言葉 (The Sayings of Nietzsche) has sold a million copies in the last year. Yes, it is in a popularizing form, but this seems more surprising as a cultural phenomenon than the Asada boom, which was propelled by the novelty of post-structuralism’s first real arrival in Japan. Nietzsche is harder to explain than Kani Kosen.

    Asada may not have lasted, but the Baudrillard turn in advertising spawned Otsuka Eiji who still moves tens of thousands of copies in print and hundreds of thousands in manga.

    Also, you might have overplayed it on the democratic character of contemporary culture vs. 1980s. That was a period in which a series of skanky teen sex confessionals (selling mainly to teen girls, through Cobalt, I think) – keitai novels before keitai – had a number of volumes break 200,000. I also think that Yamaguchi Momoe’s multi-million selling 蒼い時(Kanagawa to スター誕生! pretty sexed up urban sprawl normal girl confessional) is like a yankee made good archetype. And what can we say about bestseller 和田あき子だ!文句あっか? (around the Manzai boom that saw lots of Osakans crash national popular culture, definitely a counterpoint to the effete theory reading Tokyo). It wasn’t all Norwegian Wood.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    Kanikosen is another good example of a consumer fad that turned out having no real political impact. We have not seen a huge Communist surge since the book became so well read.

    you might have overplayed it on the democratic character of contemporary culture vs. 1980s.

    I agree that Japan had a lot of well-selling things that weren’t just for the elite classes, and you have some good examples. But I would still argue they weren’t institutionalized in the mass culture the way they are now. Having a magazine represent your specific interest (and available on all convenience store shelves) means that you as a group have been recognized by editors and advertisers.

  3. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    To be fair, a superficial understanding of Nietzsche is not that difficult (his prose is much easier to read than (say) Lacan’s or Derrida’s), and he’s a mainstay of mass-market quotation books everywhere. Dude would probably hate it.

    Now I’m curious to see how the aphorisms were rendered in Japanese in ニーチェの言葉。

  4. Chuckles Says:

    This critique goes some way in settling a certain problem: whether or not there was truly an intellectual market in Japan for certain aspects of postmodern thought; specifically deconstructionism – not just in Japan, but in the larger East as well.

    Parsing your blog post through Karatani Kojin, Derrida and Asada Akira’s later career, it appears that KK was right; contra Derrida, who argued that AA was not merely a repetition of decentered zen elements already present in Japanese thought.

    […Did the sudden widespread interest in Deleuze and Guattari actually change the nature of Japanese thought and culture?…]

    No, argued KK, because there was nothing in Japanese thought that needed or could be changed by postmodernism. Eastern thought is already isomorphic to much of deconstruction.
    Hence, consumption of the book was trendish.

  5. W. David MARX Says:

    I am hoping to provide the entire 1984 panel discussion between Karatani, Asada, and Derrida at a later date, but Derrida was indeed skeptical that Japan “couldn’t be deconstructed.” I am not expert enough on this to weigh in myself.

  6. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    Even less of an expert, but I am skeptical of anything that tries to define Japanese thought in terms of (only or especially) Zen. Even if zen was impervious to deconstruction, the rest doesn’t look like it (Confucianism, Shinto, Pure-Land, certain pervasive tendencies like what Delmer M. Brown calls “priestism” and “particularism”, post-war Japanese-style capitalism and its accompanying ethics, nihonjinronism/self-orientalism &c. &c.)

    I’m calling this “the rest” ironically. It’s a pretty damn big rest.

  7. Adamu Says:

    Fashionable women worldwide are wearing those insanely huge fake glasses. If they will do that they’ll definitely buy a difficult philosophy book just to stay with it.

  8. W. David MARX Says:

    Eastern thought is already isomorphic to much of deconstruction.

    1) I thought this over more, and I think we need more information on what Karatani exactly meant before we dismiss it outright. But in its one-sentence form, Karatani’s position does awfully sound like the Nihonjinron-Postmodernism hybrid that Azuma derails.

    There is no such thing as a “pure” Eastern logic in Japanese society, as Leonardo points to. During the entire modernization phase, I think some capitalist logic may have just snuck in. Does Karatani believe that all Japanese culture cannot be historicized or class-analyzed? Does a Japanese novel not exhibit imported Western narrative logic? And does Karatani really equate “Japan cannot be deconstructed because it’s not constructed” with “everyone already knows how to deconstruct”? Again, Derrida was very, very suspicious of Karatani’s argument.

    2) The reduction of Asada’s work to merely one of deconstruction is also too reductionist. He covers other postmodern thinkers (and post-war Marxist theory) way more than Derrida. And even if deconstruction felt “natural” within a “non-constructed Japan” (as Karatani sees it), would not a foreign formulation of this way of thinking be new and interesting? Even if Japan could not be “changed” by postmodern theory, surely it became useful shorthand for talking about those theories.

    3) The jump from seeing deconstruction as adding nothing new to Japan to a trend for Structure and Power — a movement within consumer markets — is a little too cute. I need more process. Again, you could have people who natural deconstruct everything say to themselves, wow, these French are saying very interesting things about what I already do! I don’t think Karatani actually explains the fad element. Japanese readers loved Japan as Number One — a book that very much taught them absolutely new about themselves. But I wouldn’t call that book’s success a “fad.” And it’s message clearly became a part of social rhetoric.

  9. M-Bone Says:

    I think that it is in the Foucault / Yoshimoto Takaaki taidan, but it is possible to argue in a totally different mode than the trite “Japan as zen” thing, that a certain type of Japanese academic thought is proto-deconstructive. The other countries that are among the most developed/richest at present experienced modernity as a series of coeval developments brought about by technological and economic / material change – bureaucratic creep, regimentation of time, change in imagination of distance / geography, mass mobilization for war and the instrumentalization of education for industrial and military competition with neighbors, etc.

    Japan, on the other hand, has far more examples of this sort of thing taking place as conscious, clearly-articulated modernizing projects (ie. we need the emperor to promote unity for reason X is far different than “one nation under gawd” – which is no more a “natural” development, just more opaque). Japanese culture has had a significant self-essentilaizing trend, but left academic culture (especially through the 50s but going back as early as the 20s) scooped a great deal of Western critical theory in approaching the artificialness of national community. A part of this was the process of identifying gaps in binary or dialectical logic – a fundamental part of deconstruction.

    I think Karatani might have been competing for academic capital against the entrenched Marxist elements in Japanese academia.

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    “Japanese academic thought can be proto-deconstructive” and “Japan cannot be deconstructed” seem like two very different statements. Which one is Karatani really trying to make?

  11. M-Bone Says:

    Derrida seems to have read Karatani in terms of universal critical potential –

    “I have been deeply impressed by Karatani’s rich and strong contribution to our debate. I learned a lot from it, especially from its most provocative statements, which I also understood as political insights and courageous commitments on Kojin’s part. Not only in the ideological debates in his own country, but more widely (since everything taking place in Japan nowadays is a world-wide phenomenon), Kojin’s analyses are also political commitments and performative statements in a universal debate around nationalisms today, a debate which, as we know, also takes the form of actual or potential wars.”

    And elements of that discussion seems to have been placing Japan in a continuum of modernities –

    “The second point is even more important and obviously related to the main concern of the paper, namely the close relationship between the phonocentric nativism or nativist scholarship and the development, or even the origin of nationalism, some nationalism. And the interesting and powerful gesture of Kojin here consists in generalizing this statement — that is, the Japanese phenomenon linking phonocentrism and nationalism becomes here exemplary. In fact, the same connection between phonocentrism (or the privilege granted to phonetic writing, which is perhaps something else) and nationalism has emerged, Kojin says, “all over the world without exceptions, even if such occurrences have not always been concurrent.””

    In the summary of the discussion, it certainly seems like Karatani is historicizing the nation-state and following the general assumptions of critical Marxist historiography –

    “Professor Karatani began the discussion by explaining the context in which he originally wrote his paper three years ago. Both the Gulf War and the development of the European Union made him conscious of a seeming dissolution or weakening of the nation-state and led him to think about the nature of the polis not only prior to, but also in the wake of such a nation-state. His area of concern, he emphasized, focused on questions of nation-state in relation to empire and imperialism, to the transnational, and to the idea of the “native” — questions he hoped to explore further in the discussion today.”

  12. Chuckles Says:

    Since this is thread devoted to Structure and Power, I dont want to veer off into the whole “doing PoMo in Japan” thing. I will wait for Marxy to provide the panel discussion before trashing that out.

    However, I also reject Japan = Zen. Rather, the point is that the elements in Japanese culture which would have provided a substrate for differential logic are already decentered. The “Rest” as LB puts it above may not be Zen – yet fail to provide any intellectual structure to that nebulous framework called Japanese thought. So while we would all agree that Japan != Zen, Karatani Kojin would argue that the nucleus of Japanese thought = Zen. Thus the rest would fall into the same consumer / social status interstices of structure that Marxy himself now attempts to place the early success of Asada Akira.

    I dont mind placing Karatani Kojin in a box full of Nihonjinron scholars. I agree that AA is way more than deconstruction – but this is not KK’s point. Even if an author tries not to be deconstructionist, KK argues that the entire PoMo project in Japan can be reduced to the deconstruction of Western metaphysics, modernism, etc. KK argues that because Japanese thought is decentered, all PoMo projects in that country will converge on deconstruction if purely by way of adaptation and hence are bound to fail.

    Didnt Barthes say something similar about Japan – a decentered semiotic field in which all the signs are empty? Empire of Signs was largely devoted to this.

    Barthes and KK are on the same side here and the fact that Derrida pointed to the commerical success of AA as a rebuttal of KK makes me think that KK and Barthes are right – because as Marxy has suggested, that success was hardly an intellectual one.

    MBone is not nearly as strong as either KK or Barthes in his claim about proto-deconstruction.

    KK’s strongest claim is that Japanese thought is already decentered and thus cannot be deconstructed. Barthes says:

    […The haiku…a metaphysics without subject and without God, corresponds to the Buddhist Mu, to the Zen satori. which is not at all the illuminative descent of God, but…apprehension of the thing as event and not as substance … according to an image proposed by the Hua-yen doctrine, one might say that the collective body of all haikus is a network of jewels in which each jewel reflects all the others and so on, to infinity, without there ever being a center to grasp, a primary core of irradiation.…]

    and so on.

    about the cuisine:

    […No Japanese dish is endowed with a center (the alimentary center implied in the West by the rite which consists of arranging the meal, or surrounding or covering the article of food)…]

    Apropos, in light of the importance of gastronomy in French thought – and so on, the architecture of Tokyo is acentric; not in the structural sense but by virtue of possessing an empty center – something John Nathan also alludes to in “Japan Unbound”

  13. M-Bone Says:

    Major inconsistency between the points that I cite above concerning Karatani’s engagement with Derrida and his attempts to parallel Barthes.

    Fair, I think to describe “Empire” as:
    “a meditation on Japanese culture’s contentment in the absence of a search for a transcendental signified”

    Well, both Barthes and Karatani are using Japanese Culture as a transcendental signified. The key to deconstruction is that the text does not reflect a transcendental signified, but if the haiku text or the cuisine text (&^#%, I just called food a text) reflect Japanese culture, that’s like saying that Japanese culture is uniquely decentered because it is uniquely centered in Japanese culture.

    This BS is at odds with what looks like historical materialism in Karatani’s work elsewhere.

  14. Jeffrey Says:

    Interesting reading, I’m sure, but anything more than intellectual “otaku-ism”? It’s not like Japanese society or, heaven forbid, politics is informed by intellectualism of any stripe (post-modernism, deconstructionism, puleease!)anymore than is American society. And given the complete lack of rigor in Japanese universities, does it even get any play there anymore?