Teri Silvio on her new book, Puppets, Gods, and Brands

https://uhpress.hawaii.edu/product/puppets-gods-and-brands-theorizing-the-age-of-animation-from-taiwan/

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: What first led you to start thinking about animation?

Teri Silvio:  Well, I started off by studying drama, and I wrote my dissertation on Taiwanese Opera.  Taiwanese Opera is a genre in which women play all of the leading roles, both male and female, and the vast majority of fans are also women.  I chose it because I was interested in how cross-gender performance works in contexts where it’s a long-standing historical tradition, rather than consciously feminist experimentation.  I was writing up my project proposal around the time Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter were published, and basically, I was curious whether drag could still be considered “subversive” when it was what your mother and grandmother watched.  (The answer, in case you’re wondering, is yes and no — Taiwanese women who grew up watching this genre tended to already think of gender primarily as a kind of habitus, but they didn’t think that had anything to do with why men had more power in Taiwanese society.)  Anyway, when I started working at a research institute in Taiwan, I had to come up with a new project.  At temple festivals I had noticed that there were often two stages, one showing the opera, and another showing puppetry, which was a genre that was performed and watched primarily by older men.  Also, I had seen some of the Pili puppetry series on television, and was amazed by it.  It looked like someone had decided to remake Tsui Hark’s swordsman fantasy films using puppets — there were all kinds of wild special effects, and theme songs, along with the romanticization of brotherhood you get in the swordsman genre, I just loved it at first sight.  So I decided to do a project on puppetry and its relationship to masculinity.  I was curious why drama and puppetry were so gendered in Taiwan.  I found out pretty quickly that after puppetry was adapted to television, and then to digital video, women had started to become fans.  In fact, the most active fans of the Pili series were women.  One of the activities that women fans of Pili enjoyed was cosplay, and I started going to cons and interviewing the (mostly) women I found who were cosplaying puppet characters.  I started asking them the questions I’d asked opera actresses and fans — Do you identify with the character you’re dressed as?  How do you get into character?   And I would get these puzzled looks, or long descriptions of buying bolts of cloth and sewing costumes, but nothing about embodiment or psychological identification.  When I asked people how they felt in costume, they’d say things like, “It’s like the character is with me,” but never “I feel like I am the character.” So that’s when I started to realize that there was an important, if elusive, difference between puppet characters and characters embodied by actors, and I started to think about puppetry as something more than just a variation on theatrical performance, that puppetry did something other than construct identities.  And from there I started thinking about animation in the broader sense, what it means to bring objects to life.

Ilana Gershon: In your book, animation functions in the way that media or language functions for some analysts.  Not every group understands what media or language does in the same way – Japanese approaches to cell phones are different than American approaches because of their media ideologies.  What is a Taiwanese take on animation?

Teri Silvio:  Different cultures have what I call different modes of animation — ideas about what kind of objects can be animated, what aspects of personhood can be projected into them, and how that can be done.  These ideas are grounded in specific cosmologies, ideas about the nature of humanity and the nature of the non-human world, how they came into being, and the differences between them.  Almost all anthropological studies of puppetry discuss its ritual functions.  But I think the book that was most helpful for me was Scott Cutler Shershow’s book, Puppets and “Popular” Culture.  Shershow looks at the theological grounding of puppetry in Western culture from Plato’s allegory of the cave to Jim Henson’s Muppets.  He looks not just at puppetry practices, but at how puppetry has been used as a trope, and finds that despite changes in the moral values of puppetry in Western discourse, it is almost always seen as a version of “playing God,” as a re-enactment of Genesis.    In contrast, many scholars working on Japanese manga and anime, especially those writing about the works of Miyazaki Hayao and Oshii Mamoru, have noted how Japanese animation reflects Shinto animist ideas about all kinds of objects having spirits or souls.

What I found in Taiwan was that practices of investing things with agency tended to focus on a specific type of object, the ang-a, which is an anthropomorphic figurine, usually small.  Puppets are the paradigmatic form of ang-a, but statues of gods which are made for worship are also called “just ang-a” before they are ritually animated.  Chinese folk religion is very human-centric, and investing material objects with human qualities has to start with the object being given physical human qualities — faces and bodies.  Animated animal characters in Taiwan, whether they are deities or logo characters, are almost always anthropomorphized.

Another important aspect of the religious grounding of animation in Taiwan comes from the way that religious icons have genealogies.  New icons of a particular deity usually contain incense ash from the burner of an older icon, so there is a kind of contagious magic at work, with substance being passed down from “original” to “divided” icons.  The proliferation of icons is seen as evidence of that god’s efficacy, and also as how that god comes to have more presence and power in people’s lives.  One of my arguments is that, while people do not think that puppet or manga characters are ontologically similar to gods, they do see the relationship between popular culture characters and their many tie-in products as being similar to the relationship between gods and their icons, and there’s a lot of overlap between the vocabulary and practices of Chinese folk religion and those of Taiwanese puppetry and manga/anime fandoms.

Ilana Gershon: With Hong Kong protests happening in the background, along with such a complex legacy of various colonialisms in East Asia, I was wondering if you could speak to how easily some forms and aesthetics seem to travel in this region, despite or maybe because of the regional politics.

Teri Silvio:  The markets in cultural products throughout East Asia are heavily influenced by two major producers, Japan and the United States, and domestic content producers are constantly struggling to break through their hegemony (the PRC is a special case here, where import of foreign cultural products are strictly limited by the state, but even there American and Japanese influence is felt).  This has more directly to do with American control over distribution networks that was set up after World War II, and a concerted push by Japan to establish similar distribution networks throughout Asia starting in the late 1980s (which has been documented in detail by Koichi Iwabuchi and others).  The degree to which different countries’ products dominate local markets varies, not only by country, but also by generation and by industry (for instance, in Taiwan, American, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and local bands are all competitive in the popular music market, but over 90% of the comic books on sale in Taiwan are translations of Japanese manga). So what popular culture is available, and what is mainstream, is largely determined by government policy and corporate strategy. The historical experience of colonialism is more a factor in terms of how cultural products are received in different countries.  So for instance, Japanese cultural products are less controversial in Taiwan than in Korea or China, where there are frequent boycotts of Japanese products, and this has to do not only with the differences in how the Japanese administered different territories under their control in the early twentieth century, but also in how the colonial era took on different meanings in light of what came after.

In this context, Iwabuchi and others have argued that one reason Japan has succeeded in exporting so much of their popular culture throughout East Asia is the way that they create the sense of “cultural proximity,” the idea that contemporary Japan represents a kind of modernity different from that represented by Hollywood and other American products, a modernity that is less alien and more easily imagined as achievable.  But the idea of cultural proximity can be a double-edged sword, especially if it is too explicit, since it can recall imperial Japan’s “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” ideology.

In the book, I am more interested in what globalization looks like if we focus on animation genres, rather than performed, or live action ones.  On the one hand, I look at how the Pili International Multimedia Company has tried to market their video puppetry overseas, trying out different models, with their most successful attempt at globalization happening when they cooperate with a Japanese animation creator.  I argue that Pili crosses borders best when it presents a vision of what globalization might look like if it were motivated by traditional Chinese structures and concerns, and that the use of “traditional” genres and media creates a different kind of trans-East Asian cultural proximity from that created by idol dramas.  So I note that, while the Pili company’s attempts to be “the Disney of Taiwan” largely failed, the fandom spread quite rapidly, through shared practices that might be thought of as “folk culture,” such as the collective re-creation of a wide variety of versions of the characters in different media, and the proliferation of ang-a.  While the cultural proximity of idol dramas tries to make an end run around historical trauma by focusing on shared modernity, Taiwanese video puppetry makes an end run around the traumas of colonial and post-colonial modernity by focusing on aesthetics, practices, and ideologies that unite the pre-modern past and the post-modern present.

Ilana Gershon: You argue that men and women have different relationships to various forms of animation.  In what ways and how is this shaped by overarching labor issues?

Teri Silvio: I look at this mainly in the chapter on cosplay, which is primarily an activity for women fans of puppetry, manga, and anime.  I ask why cosplay is so appealing to young women, and not to men.  I work from the basic premise that cosplay is one of many forms of play that function as a sort of safe, enjoyable place to practice skills and forms of sociality that are necessary in the less safe and enjoyable spaces, especially at work.  Cosplay is, at the surface level, a kind of performance.  And most cosplayers are working in the pink collar sector (as secretaries, kindergarten teachers, salespeople, and so on).   In the 1980s, Arlie Hochschild worked with flight attendants, and found that they think of their work in pretty classic Goffmanian terms – they saw their main work skills as performances of self, impression management, controlling the moods of passengers by controlling their own mood and embodiment.  So one could see cosplay as a play form of the emotional labor that these women have to do in their jobs.  But cosplay only started in the 1990s, and to find out why it became popular when it did, we need to look more closely at what has changed in pink collar labor.  The Italian Autonomists are probably the theorists who have tried to outline what’s going on with post-industrial labor most thoroughly.  While their idea of “immaterial labor” can be useful, and they do note gendered divisions of labor within that category (basically, men do programming, women do caretaking), the way they think about digital technology tends to help us understand what’s changing in men’s work, but cover up what’s happening in pink collar work.  One of the big differences between the women cosplayers I interviewed and their mothers is how much of the work of emotional labor they do online, as opposed to in person.  Taiwan has one of the world’s highest cellphone ownership and internet penetration rates, and young people here spend huge amounts of time on social networking platforms, online chat groups, cellphone messaging, and so on. Emotional work that their mothers did through embodiment, they have to do via online avatars or personae created through text and image, that is, through animation.  But at the same time, of course, there are still lots of situations where they do have to do embodied performances of gender.  So I think that one of the reasons why cosplay has replaced other forms of embodied play at this point in time is because it lets women play with how to negotiate performance and animation – how to communicate through the body without having to enter into a role, how to use their bodies as puppets instead of as outward manifestations of some inner essence.

Ilana Gershon: You suggest that animation can be the basis for a new form of political activism.  How would this work?

Teri Silvio: If only I knew – I’d go out and do it!  You should probably ask John Bell, because he’s been doing amazing political puppetry and thinking about how to use puppets for activism for so long.  But I do see a lot of potential for getting out of the traps of identity politics if we start thinking of identity as something that’s created through animation, through the collective projection of aspects of our selves outward, rather than as the interiorization of roles. It might help us let go of the idea that our identities are something we possess, and other people’s identities are something we have no stake in or responsibility for. Since I finished the book, I have seen some intriguing examples of people using what I would call animation practices in political activism.  I was on a fabulous  conference panel recently (thanks to Laurel Kendall for organizing it), and one of the papers was by Moumita Sen, who talked about a group of leftist activists in West Bengal who have been trying to create Adivasi (indigenous) solidarity by remaking a demon into a god.  They made statues of this new god with dark skin and muscular bodies, combining traditional Hindu iconography with the iconography of the working-class hero.    And I’ve seen the image of a cute cartoon pig in lots of graffiti from the Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests.  At first I thought it was McDull, the protagonist of a series of anime who is a little boy pig being raised by his overworked mother in the city, and who is affectionately seen as a symbol of Hong Kong identity.  But it isn’t; apparently it’s a sort of emoji character from a messaging service that the young protesters are using.  Which is in some ways more interesting, because emoji characters are more open than anime characters (although the categories overlap, as some anime characters have their own emoji series), they primarily represent states of mind, what they say about identity is there, but secondary.  Anyway, I’m really hoping I can do some more work on the use of emoji characters soon, because I’m really intrigued by how they circulate and can give people a sense of a collective mood, or set of moods, emerging from the chaos of online discourse.

 

Devin Proctor’s page 99 test

My dissertation, On Being Non-Human: Otherkin Identification and Virtual Space, is based on five years of ethnographic engagement examining identity construction and social practice among the Otherkin, a group of several thousand people who self-identify as intrinsically other-than-human. Otherkin recognize their bodies as biologically human, but their inner selves as non-human (such as wolves, dragons, elves). Because the group meets almost exclusively in Internet spaces, the dissertation follows the Otherkin across platforms—Second Life, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, and Reddit—to trace how digital technologies can be used to mitigate the misfit between their bodies and identities.

Page 99 appears near the end of Chapter One and contains the transition from one large section to another in a discussion delineating “Otherkinity” as a term and an identity category. Here it is, without edits:

***

It is possible that other-than-human-ness has been an intrinsic facet of humanity from our very beginnings—images of human shape-shifting can be seen in the Lascaux cave paintings, created roughly 17,000 years ago (Henneberg and Saniotis 2016). If this experience of other-than-human-ness has, indeed, been occurring all over the world throughout history, it stands to logic that it did not simply stop due to Western modernity and post-enlightenment science. Yet, aside from the Otherkin (and children, as mentioned above) we have seen no large scale non-human identity category in Western, industrialized nations. A possible reason other-than-human experience has not been recorded on a larger scale in the West is that people did not have a name for it. When observed elsewhere, we have simply referred the myriad other-than-human experiences with the umbrella term animism. This same type of animism in Western contexts has not been available as a way to be a human (Hacking 1995, 2006). And now it is: it is called Otherkinity.

An Otherkin is a Kind of Human

As much as Otherkinity is a felt, experienced, embodied state of being, it is also socially constructed. I mean this in the sense that it is a category of identity based around a culturally constructed set of criteria, like being obese, or a woman, or mentally ill. Philosopher Ian Hacking calls these “human kinds,” by which he means “classifications that could be used to formulate general truths about people; generalizations sufficiently strong that they seem like laws about people, their actions, or their sentiments” (Hacking 1995, 352; see also Goffman 1963).

***

This passage might seem, at first, a poor representation of the work, since it mentions nothing of the Internet and contains absolutely no ethnographic content or even a citation to an actual anthropologist. On a more theoretical level, however, it speaks to one of the dissertation’s foundational assertions: that our identities as humans are just as culturally constructed as they are biologically designated. While this dual formation can be seen quite clearly in the case of my interlocutors, I would argue that it is true for us all. The tension between cultural and biological human identity underpins political arguments about which bathrooms we can use and the relationship between DNA testing and membership in particular ethnic groups. Indeed, one of the main arguments that I put forth in the dissertation as a whole is that the Otherkin represent a larger shift in body-understanding from a Cartesian bounded vessel to something more plastic and negotiable, epitomized in growing numbers of people identifying as trans* fluid, nonbinary, and neurodiverse. The term I offer for this wider phenomenon is open-bodied identification. Further, I argue that our increasing interaction in and with Internet spaces—as a technologically-mediated form of animism—helps to foster this open-bodiedness by extending the indexical relationship between our bodies and our identities.

 

Proctor, Devin. 2019. “On Being Non-Human: Otherkin Identification and Virtual Space” Ph.D. diss. The George Washington University.

Devin Proctor can be contacted here: dproctor@gwu.edu

Cited References

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Simon & Schuster.

Hacking, Ian. 1995. “The Looping Effects of Human Kinds.” In Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate, edited by D. Sperber, D. Premack, and A. J. Premack, 351–94. Symposia of the Fyssen Foundation. New York, NY, US: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press.

———. 2006. “Making Up People.” London Review of Books, August 17, 2006. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n16/ian-hacking/making-up-people.

Henneberg, Maciej, and Arthur Saniotis. 2016. The Dynamic Human. Bentham Science Publishers. https://doi.org/10.2174/97816810823561160101.

Jennifer Robertson on her new book, Robo sapiens japanicus

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520283206/robo-sapiens-japanicus

Interview by Daniel White

Daniel White: In addition to the variety of topics you have explored in Japan over your career, you have been researching and writing on robotics for more than a decade now. Given your work has long been noted not only for its archival rigor and ethnographic attention to detail but also for its accessibility, could you outline how you might describe this book’s main arguments to an audience full of the many roboticists you have spoken with over the years? Would you add anything else in addressing your anthropology colleagues once the interlocutors had left the room?

 Jennifer Robertson: My address to roboticists would be the same with or without anthropologists in the room, for the reasons that my book is aimed at a broad readership inside and outside of “the academy,” and that—at the risk of appearing immodest—all parties, roboticists and anthropologists included, could benefit from my observations. A key point I make several times in Robo sapiens japanicus (RSJ) is that roboticists and anthropologists researching robotics alike must guard against contributing to hyping gee-whiz robots and to exaggerating the virtues (and vices) of artificial intelligence. With perhaps the exception of iRobot’s Roomba and industrial robots already installed in factories, most robots aimed at non-military consumers are one-off prototypes and not viable, much less reliable, products. Amazing robot videos are heavily edited and speeded up, and the scenarios do not represent real-world conditions and applications.

Just this past month, articles and editorials have appeared in leading robotics journals that provide a reality check for roboticists. To summarize: overselling robot capabilities has proved to be a dangerous strategy resulting in the very recent shutting down of a number of companies whose robots were celebrated in the past several years as revolutionary household appliances. Jibo—Time magazine’s “Best Inventions of 2017”—mentioned in my book, was crowd funded on Indiegogo (for nearly $4 million) but the eponymous company never delivered their product and closed out this year. Roboticists (and, I might add, those who research, study, and write about robots) need to admit their failures and to reflect on how to learn from them.

 Daniel White: In the book you explore how “robots tend to both mirror and embody state and corporate ideologies and priorities” (p. 82). Can you discuss some of the ways these state ideologies contribute to the gendering of robots, especially considering how Japanese roboticists have long embraced theories and design strategies that explore intelligence as a necessarily embodied phenomenon?

 Jennifer Robertson: You’re asking two different questions: state/corporate ideologies and embodied intelligence. First of all, we should not assume that technology per se is liberating; technology can provide certain freedoms, but it can also be experienced as repressive and even alarming. Technology and robotics are not neutral fields. They are infused with values that transcend their usefulness and convenience. Because robots are very complex, very expensive machines, state and corporate funding is crucial for their development, and thus robots tend both to mirror and to embody state and corporate values, ideologies, and priorities which are conservative and tend to reinforce the status quo. As a sidebar note—robotics in the US is heavily supported by the Department of Defense, and today in Japan, robotics are incorporated into the lucrative weapons economy.

Embodied intelligence, as I elaborate in my book, refers to a dynamic coupling of a robot with its environment. Home/personal robots are envisioned as co-existing with humans in spaces designed for the human body, thus they should resemble humans. Among roboticists across national/cultural areas, there is a consensus that intelligence (however that is defined, and there are many working definitions) cannot exist in an abstract form but requires a material body. That material body is almost always gendered, and the gendering of robots is contingent upon what role the robot (humanoid, in this case) is imagined to assume. Since many human roles are gendered, and since most roboticists take for granted the sexual and gendered division of labor—females as homemakers occupying a domestic space, males as breadwinners occupying a public space—their robots are also gendered from the start at the design stage. In short, roboticists (the vast majority of whom are males who have neither taken classes in gender studies nor questioned the social construction of gender) inscribe and reinforce in their creations the binary sexual and gender(ed) status quo that remains for them self-evident. Even gender-neutral robots like Roomba tend to be named and gendered by their owners.

 Daniel White: You survey a number of ways that both robotics engineers and government officials imagine harmonious futures of people living intimately with robots, a notion that strikes some people both inside and outside Japan as somewhat creepy. However, particularly in your analysis of Masahiro Mori’s famous notion of the “uncanny valley,” you suggest that people exhibit a capacity to adapt rather quickly to any “eerie” feelings they may initially feel toward a robot. Can you say more about Mori’s concept and what your reading of its temporal dimensions implies for the politics of human-robot interactions in Japan and perhaps beyond?

 Jennifer Robertson: As I explain in RSJ, what is uncanny about the “uncanny valley” is how this idea has been misunderstood! Mori came up with the idea of bukimi no tani (“eerie-feeling valley”) in 1970 before the production of humanoids. In a nutshell, he proposed that a woman (he deliberately chose a female protagonist) who shook someone’s hand not knowing it was a life-like myoelectric prosthetic, would scream and freak out once she realized that what she assumed was flesh and blood was not. Mori drew a graph that hypothesized as a “valley” the shock of realizing that something one was convinced was an ordinary human was actually an animated mannequin. Subsequently, “uncanny valley” emerged as a condition to avoid in designing robots and was also appropriated by literary critics who grafted the concept onto Freud’s thesis of the uncanny (about which Mori knew nothing). As I argue, even if said woman screamed upon squeezing a prosthetic hand, she would quickly recover—in seconds. We humans encounter differently-abled, “differently” appearing bodies all the time, and quickly adapt to an enhanced “normal.” Perhaps ironically, Mori, who was a teenager during WW2, seems to have forgotten the disabled veterans in his midst, many of whom were fitted with prosthetic limbs. The literature debunking the earlier “natural law”-like acceptance of the uncanny valley hypothesis is now quite extensive.

Daniel White: In the text you skillfully weave together histories of technology, the life sciences, and art in illustrating how the boundaries between artificial and “natural” life in Japan are differently drawn. For example, in your discussion of the biologist Makoto Nishimura’s famous “proto-robot” Gakutensoku in 1928, you suggest that many scientists in Japan have long held the attitude that robots and humans exist “in a network of animate entities” (p. 13). This point seems critical to your broader discussion on how cutting-edge technologies can actually serve in the reproduction of tradition. I wonder, then, what happens to this particular cultural attitude as it comes into contact with certain globalizing aspects of robotics research and design in Japan, especially as researchers in Japan increasingly collaborate with students and researchers from abroad?

 Jennifer Robertson: Should “something” happen? The spiritual/existential orientations of individual roboticists, from Shintō’s animism and Buddhism’s moral system, to the Abrahamic monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, do not seem to affect the ways in which they collaborate in the laboratory. What inhibit “global” intersections and synergies are the constraints imposed by, to use an ever relevant phrase, the military industrial complex (aka the state). Moreover, collaboration with non-Japanese researchers (in Japanese and foreign laboratories) can yield innovations that can be applied and adapted to Japan-specific conditions and needs.

 Daniel White: Your ethnographic writing style has been incredibly consistent over the years, characterized, as you describe, by a “reticulate aesthetics” that is “eclectic, genre-crossing, discipline-crossing,” and held together by a coherence that “comes from the interlaced elements and not via the superimposition of a particular theoretical edifice” (p. 31). Given your own training in art and art history, as well as your illustration of how roboticists integrate artistic elements from manga, anime, and theater into their own design practices, were you ever tempted to experiment in terms of ethnographic design, such as by incorporating some of your own artwork? Could you discuss what role you see for artistic experimentation in today’s practices of ethnographic writing and the communication of anthropological research?  

 Jennifer Robertson: I see myself as creative in identifying and demonstrating montage-like linkages that generate a new awareness or interpretation of events and socio-cultural phenomena. That I am able to do so is because I have accessed and amassed over decades of rigorous, interdisciplinary research, lots of ethnographic, historical, literary, image-based, and musical data and media that are instrumental in crafting comprehensive backstories and generating manifold “dots” to connect. Among these data and media are artworks that evocatively address and redress the role(s) of technology in society. Thus, in RSJ, I refer to the work of Japanese feminist artist Miwa Yanagi (specifically, her photography series Elevator Girls, 1994-1999) and Korean-American artist Nam June Paik’s Robot K-456 (1964-1982). I do not simply include artworks as self-evident or as mere illustrations, but as a non-textual mode of interrogating, in this case, social applications of robotics and human-robot interactions. I did include one of my own collages in a recent article (“Looking Ahead by Going Back.” Anthropology News website, July 18, 2018) to illustrate Prime Minister Abe’s imagination of the future Japanese extended family, including its robot members. The bottom line for me (or my “approach”) is my fiduciary responsibilities as a scholar. I have always initiated a research project based on my experience or fathoming of rhetorical, expressive, local dynamics that intersect in ways to form distinctive patterns which inform the structure and content of a book or article. I do believe that there is a lot more that anthropologists can do to experiment with various literary strategies in crafting their ethnographies to create more dimensionality and texture in their description and (re)presentation of local phenomena. These include montage—my own use of which was informed by John Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy (1938) I read while writing my doctoral dissertation—as well as various typefaces and fonts, popular lyrics, and a variety of images from which information is extracted, to name a few. Reading more literature and less social science is critical in learning how to craft an ethnography!

 Jennifer Robertson is Professor of Anthropology and the History of Art at the University of Michigan. Robo sapiens japanicus is available from the University of California Press.