John Brackett
University of Utah1

  1. Even for those not intimately familiar with John Zorn’s music, the composer’s name will probably evoke certain associations. One is the image of Zorn as the quintessential postmodern composer, a theme developed by a number of writers.2 In such works as Cat O’ Nine Tails for string quartet, Carny for solo piano, and the numerous “hardcore miniatures” associated with Zorn’s band Naked City, musical genres and/or styles are juxtaposed against one another in a collage or pastiche style of presentation that is often described as postmodern. The effect of these pieces can be described as a sort of musical “channel-surfing” where a minimum amount of information is given – enough to provide the listener with some idea of what musical style is in play – before moving on to the next musical image.

  2. Figure 1: Click to enlarge.
    CAUTION: Image is extremely graphic
    Figure 2: Click to enlarge.
    CAUTION: Image is extremely graphic
    Figure 3: Click to enlarge.
    CAUTION: Image is extremely graphic
    Another image of Zorn is darker and, for some, dangerous. This view derives in part from the graphic and disturbing visual images that were included on many of his recordings through the late-80s and early- to mid-90s. Most of these images appeared on recordings of his Naked City and Painkiller projects and reflect Zorn’s interest at that time in hardcore rock music (especially bands such as Napalm Death, Carcass, Godflesh, Brutal Truth, and many others), aspects of Japanese underground movements, and his participation in various sadomasochistic (S/M) scenes and practices.3 Especially with the Naked City project, the violent juxtapositions of musical blocks, an emphasis – at times – on noise, and an attention to volume and “heaviness” are accompanied by violent, graphic imagery included on the album sleeves and liner notes. Some of these images are reproduced in Figures 1-3. Figure 1 is a manga (a form of Japanese cartoon) by Suehiro Maruo; Figure 2 is a film still (from Zorn’s own private collection) from an unidentified “pink film” (a Japanese pornographic film); Figure 3 is an archival photograph depicting the torture and execution of a Chinese criminal.4 With these records, a sort of package is achieved whereby the music can be understood as a loose musical equivalent of these images.5

  3. However we wish to conceive of the relation between music and image, the presence of these images on Zorn’s recordings led to a backlash from many groups and organizations. The loudest outcry came from Asian-American women’s and anti-bias organizations. In one of the many newspaper articles addressing these images, Elisa Lee asks:
    How is that in a society where an episode of “Roseanne” showing a kiss between two women causes a flurry of public attention and sparks rumors of censorship, a musician who conducts concerts in front of screens of Japanese pornography, distributes albums with covers of Asian women being hung, mutilated and tortured and dedicates an album to Chinese torture, can incite nary a protest in mainstream American media? (Lee 1)6
  4. In addition to journalists such as Lee, academics have also taken notice of Zorn’s music and imagery. Most notably, Ellie Hisama has addressed Zorn’s complex relationship with Japanese imagery and especially his representation of Japanese women (Hisama, “Postcolonialism” 329-346).7 In her essay, “John Zorn and the Postmodern Condition,” Hisama considers the images reproduced in Figures 1-3 and makes it clear that she finds the “presence of the photographs and film stills extremely disturbing ... ”  (Hisama, “John Zorn” 78). Claiming to speak “from the position of the object that Zorn represents,” Hisama criticizes Zorn from a variety of perspectives: that in terms of what it represents, his music serves to “aestheticize torture” and that his musical appropriations are insensitive. One of the main aims of her essay is, in her own words, an attempt to develop a theory of “repulsion,” a way to talk about “music that we don’t care for [and] of music that we find dull, inept, or downright repulsive [or] of music that we understand to negate, devalue, and disrespect who we are … ” (Hisama, “John Zorn” 72). In an effort to develop this theory of the repulsive, Hisama suggests that we should “embrace interdisciplinarity, drawing upon insights from ethnomusicology, cultural studies, critical theory, ethnic studies, postcolonial theory, queer theory, and feminist theory … .” If musicologists and music theorists incorporate these (and presumably many other) theoretical perspectives, Hisama believes that we would be in a much better position to “educate the producers and consumers of music such as Torture Garden as to how persons of color and women regard their use as currency in a postmodern artistic economy for others’ professional and economic gain” (Hisama, “John Zorn” 83-84).

  5. Like Hisama and many others, I, too, was shocked when I first experienced these images at the time of their release. Of course, for a white, middle-class, American male, these images will never mean or represent to me the same things they do for Hisama. What I always found remarkable about these images was their unreality – the unreality of their scenarios, the unreality of their presentation (i.e., cartoons and film stills), and the vast differences between the sexual interests and view of women expressed in these images and my own (i.e.,their “otherness”). On the other hand, for a viewer like Hisama, what is remarkable about these images is how “real” they actually are or can be. Without a doubt, these are complex images. Their complexity is compounded by the fact that they are drawn from Japan and China, appropriated by a Westerner who then subsequently re-presents them to Western audiences and Western sensibilities. Along the way, these images undergo a series of semantic transformations; how they are “read” in Asian countries might be different from how they are read in America. At the same time, the way(s) in which Zorn reads these images may or may not correspond to how others read them.

  6. Developing the interpretive differences exemplified by Hisama and myself (that of reality vs. unreality), I will examine how these images can be read according to interpretive frameworks that rely upon ideas relating to reality and fantasy. How is fantasy understood in relation to the real? How is the “real” partially formed by fantasy? How does fantasy contest the primacy and power of the real? These are all questions that tie together the various ways Zorn’s images have been used, understood, and received. I will address these and other questions in three contexts: the (Asian-)American reception and interpretation of these images as being an example of a special type of reality (one where fantasy plays no part); a Japanese socio-cultural context where these images are understood as complex fantasy (as fantasy that provides an “outlet” and, at the same time, maintains a certain status quo); and Zorn’s musical poetics where these images are understood as transgressive acts that highlight the “hidden gaps,” or aporias, left open by a reality that relies upon notions of rationality, utility, and subjective wholeness (a poetics derived, in large part, from the thought of Georges Bataille).

  7. The complex ways producers and (willing or unwilling) consumers of these images understand the fantasy/reality distinction(s) will not solve the difficulties they present. If anything, they will make things more difficult. I should make it clear that I am not attempting a defense of Zorn’s decisions; that Zorn offended a great many people by including these and other images on his records is undeniable. Instead, I am interested in how these images are read within or against interpretive frameworks that — either explicitly or implicitly — rely upon distinctions between fantasy and reality. In an effort to adequately describe these various frameworks, I will adopt a multi-perspectival mode of presentation.8 Before addressing the actual images and their contexts from these various perspectives, a brief discussion on some of these fantasy/reality frameworks is necessary.
  8. The Fantastic and the Real

  9. One theory of fantasy is also, by exclusion, a theory of the real. Such a view can be considered a naïve view of fantasy where the real might be defined as “what there is” while fantasy is understood as “what there is not,” hence the “unreal.” According to this naïve view, what is real is obvious: the real includes everything we all know, perceive, or understand as being true or beyond question. Science, evidence, facts, and intersubjective confirmation all determine, to a large extent, those things, beliefs, phenomena, etc. that qualify as real. Anything characterized as fantasy resists the types of verification associated with the real. To be clear, though, it is not that the real is unequipped to deal with fantasy and the fantastic; the real understands that there is no reason to seriously address fantasy.

  10. While a naïve view of fantasy and the real might be adequate when considering unbelievable scenarios or exaggerated representations of people or things, the distinction is not as obvious in everyday, “real-world,” situations. A brief mental review of the history of science is evidence enough to convince us that what was at one time considered fantasy — i.e., the not-real — was later admitted to the category of the real. Notice, however, that the real is the arbiter of what is or is not considered fantasy. If something makes the switch from the fantastic to the real, it is only according to the terms of the real; at all times fantasy is silent, having no say in regard to its status. The relative fluidity as to what is considered real or fantasy represents a more common-sense view of the distinction. The common-sense view contains a built-in feature that allows for the “as-yet-to-be-determined” reality of what is, at the present time, fantasy. The common-sense view accommodates change with to-be-developed mechanisms for determining what constitutes the real. Such mechanisms are easy to see in the area of science where more sophisticated theories or testing devices can expand the realm of the real. At the same time, the common-sense view is seen around us in our everyday lives, in advertising, politics, and other day-to-day interactions. The psychoanalytic notion of wish-fulfillment falls under the common-sense view, as the “not-yet-real” is closer than we might think. (“If you want that raise, then you need to do x, y, and z,” “Want to date more beautiful women/men, then buy this penis enlarger!,” “Wouldn’t you look good in a Lexus?”) In a related fashion, the possibility that fantasy is an imminent reality and therefore must not become real is common in contemporary politics and relies on the common-sense view. (“If you want to hold on to your personal freedoms, then you must do your part in helping us defeat terrorism.”)

  11. With a slight shift in perspective, we can identify the category of the real as being determined by institutions of power. Those “in charge” of the real have at their disposal the ability to identify what is not real. With this shift, what is real is now understood as serving stabilizing forces designed to preserve the status quo (maintaining the hegemony of a particular institution) while, at the same time, assuming some sort of valuative function(s). By ruling over and determining the real, power structures make available — even promote — those things that are useful, productive, and “right”; moreover, what is deemed useful and productive continually serves the powers-that-be. At the same time, institutions of power not only determine the real, they can also construct fantasies, fantasies that serve to perpetuate the real. As an example, Foucault has described how discursive practices established during the “Victorian regime” (and still in effect today) were able to circumscribe ways of talking about, understanding, and practicing sex and sexuality — his so-called “repressive hypothesis” (Foucault passim). Through an increased openness and frankness in discussions relating to sex, religious institutions and other political bodies attempted to reign in and de-mystify questions relating to human sexuality. “Rather than the uniform concern to hide sex,” Foucault writes, “rather than the general prudishness of language, what distinguishes these last three centuries is the variety, the wide dispersion of devices that were invented for speaking about it, for having it be spoken about, for inducing it to speak of itself, for listening, recording, transcribing, and redistributing what is said about it … . Rather than massive censorship, beginning with the verbal proprieties of the Age of Reason, what was involved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse” (Foucault 34). The result of this openness has not been an “anything-goes,” free-love approach to matters relating to sex, but, instead, the conservative circumscription of sexuality according to principles of production and utility; that is, heterosexual/procreative sex. As a result, anything related to sex that could not be understood according to the principles of production or utility is understood as other, deviant, taboo, and, therefore, prohibited fantasy.

  12. Foucault also points out that greater restrictions and prohibitions related to sex and sexuality also had the reverse effect; that is, seemingly more and more “peripheral sexualities” arose, or became more visible, as a result of the centrifugal forces of heterosexual, procreative, and monogamous relationships. Power and its hold on the real was constantly being contested by those forces that it had tried to suppress; it was being challenged from within. Whereas outward and external manifestations of taboo and prohibition-breaking behavior could, to a certain extent, be brought back under control (by legal, educational, medicinal, or a variety of other means), it is much more difficult to satisfactorily handle similar external manifestations of transgressive behavior that arise from fantasy and the subject’s mental life. Freud’s notion of psychic reality seriously undermines the reality/fantasy distinction by positing that external behaviors — neuroses, symptoms, etc. — may actually arise from unconscious memories that have no basis in reality. That is, fantasies (or phantasies) constructed by an individual that are believed to be true — i.e., grounded in reality — may actually have been fabricated by the individual. The individual believes some memory to be true (as having actually happened) when, in “reality,” no such events ever occurred. The result is the seemingly paradoxical situation that certain external behaviors or acts (associated with the real) can be traced back to (unreal) fantasies of the subject.

  13. If we pursue these implications far enough, we can potentially view the entire project that has constructed, maintained, and sustained the fantasy/reality split as, itself, a form of fantasy. Judith Butler, for example, has suggested that we can “understand the ‘real’ as a variable construction which is always and only determined in relation to its constitutive outside: fantasy, the unthinkable, the unreal.”
    The positivist version of the real will consign absence to the unreal, even as it relies on that absence to stabilize its own boundaries. In this sense, the phantasmatic, as precisely such a constitutive exclusion, becomes essential to the construction of the real. If this is so, in what sense, then, can we understand the real as an installation and foreclosure of fantasy, a phantasmatic construction which receives a certain legitimation after which it is called the real and disavowed as phantasmatic? In what sense is the phantasmatic most successful precisely in that determination in which its own phantasmatic status is eclipsed and renamed as the real? Here the distinction between the real and unreal contrives a boundary between the legitimate domain of the phantasmatic and the illegitimate. (Butler 186)9

  14. The fluidity of the reality/fantasy distinction is highly suggestive. At the same time, however, while I am attracted by the theoretical implications of arguments such as Butler’s, I am a bit skeptical (maybe nervous is a better word) about how such theories can be effectively implemented in practical ,“real-world” situations. That is, I perceive the potential for an extreme, radical relativism in both thought and practice if ideas such as these are used, for example, as legal defenses of criminal conduct, moral or ethical justifications of acts, etc. Perhaps this shows that the notion of the “real” — the useful, the productive, the rational, and the regulated — is just as much a necessity for fantasy as fantasy is for reality.

  15. I recognize that the fantasy/reality distinction requires a much more thorough and rigorous explication than the one I have just presented. Issues of space and scope, of course, prevent me from doing so within the present essay. However, I do believe that, given the rough outline described above, we are able understand how distinctions relating to fantasy and reality can be conceived and put to use. At the same time, we can recognize the variety of ways texts or images are “read” by groups or individuals, forms of reading that depend upon some understanding of the relation(s) between fantasy and reality.

    Reception of Zorn’s Images in America: The Revenge of the Real

  16. For Ellie Hisama and other individuals or groups who have expressed disgust or revulsion at Zorn’s imagery, the images reproduced in Figures 1-3 are understood as re-presenting a sort of social reality. In particular, the reality depicted is one based upon misogyny, racism, and stereotypical constructions of Asian women. The images are understood as dangerous not only in an epistemological, conceptual sense, but also in a practical sense where these images can be understood as potentially functioning somewhere along a causal chain that will lead to violent acts towards Asian women. The critics’ crusade against these images, and the pressure applied to Zorn to remove them, was understood as serving both conceptual and practical purposes (“a matter of personal survival”) (Hisama, “John Zorn” 84). Numerous comments by Zorn’s detractors speak to the dangerous reality of these images:
    “These images are degrading and reinforces [sic] all sorts of stereotypes of Asian women being sexual mannequins and victims.” (Richard Oyama)
    “It’s so obviously dehumanizing … one should know when you present an image how it is perceived. When [Zorn] puts out those images, it reinforces things, whether he wants it to or not.” (Jason Hwang) (Lee 1)
    “The dismemberment of the sonic body [described by Hisama in her analysis of Naked City’s song “Osaka Bondage”] is related to the dismemberment of the actual bodies depicted on the CD covers … .” (Hisama) (Hisama, “John Zorn” 80)10

  17. For these and other critics, the images — the manga, the film stills, and the archival photos — are understood as unmediated re-presentations of the real. While the images from Leng Tch’e are truly “documentary” in nature, the cartoon images and film stills can also be understood as being just as real for they, too, document a sort of social reality. The “cinematic” nature of the film stills and archival photos do not lie: “These things happen(ed),” they announce to us. The manga, although lacking the cinematic reality of the other images, partake in this announcement. While they lack the documentary tone of the other images, the manga are drawn from and reinforce the same reality responsible for the photographs and the film images.

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1 A number of individuals offered helpful comments, criticisms, and suggestions on earlier versions of this essay. I would especially like to thank (in no particular order) Kathryn Stockton, Tomomi Nakashima, Shuhei Hosokawa, Aki Kawamoto, Andy Flory, Jonathan Hiam, Seth Coluzzi, the two anonymous reviewers for Echo, and, of course, John Zorn.

2 Jonathan D. Kramer, “Beyond Unity: Toward an Understanding of Musical Postmodernism”; Tom Service, “Playing a New Game of Analysis: John Zorn’s Carny, Autonomy and Postmodernism”; Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom, 145-152. See also Kevin McNeilly, “Ugly Beauty: John Zorn and the Politics of Postmodern Music.”

3 Naked City released and recorded five studio albums and one EP between 1989 and 1993. The band consisted of Zorn on alto saxophone, Fred Frith on bass, Bill Frisell on guitar, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, and Joey Baron on drums. Yamutsaka Eye contributes vocals on some tracks. Although the band quit performing and recording in 1993, they did re-form for two live shows in the summer of 2003.
The core group comprising Painkiller consisted of Zorn on saxophone, Bill Laswell on bass, and Mick Harris on drums. This band (active from 1991 until around 1994) released two EPs, one full-length album, and a number of live recordings. The group – with different drummers and, sometimes, with an added vocalist – still performs.

4 Figures 1 and 2 were included on Naked City’s album Torture Garden; Figure 3 appears on the band’s Leng Tch’e EP. Torture Garden was originally released in 1989 on Toy’s Factory/Earache/Shimmy Disc and is a collection of the “hardcore pieces” that would later be included on Naked City and Naked City’s Grand Guignol. Leng Tch’e was originally released in 1990 on Toy’s Factory. All of these recordings are included on Naked City: Black Box and, more recently, Naked City: The Complete Studio Recordings.

5 Zorn has often emphasized the close relations between the music and artwork on all of his recordings. “For me, my record covers are very important. The cover has got to follow through with what the music is about. I don’t just make music. I make records. I just don’t give a tape to a record company + let them package it any way they want so it sells a lot. It has to mean something. The record package is art.” (Tai Toshiharu and John Zorn, “About the Record Jacket of Guts of a Virgin,” Eureka: Poems and Criticism 29/1 (1997): 138. Emphasis in original.)

6 See also Denise Hamilton, “Zorn’s ‘Garden’ Sprouts Discontent Jazz,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 15, 1994: 9; Alex Beels, “Musician John Zorn’s Brutal Images of Asians Draw Fire,” Asian New Yorker (May 1994): 5-6.

7 All subsequent citations will be drawn from the reprinted version of Hisama’s essay appearing in Middleton, Reading Pop. See also Hisama, “John Zorn and the Postmodern Condition,” in Locating East Asia in Western Art Music. Ed. Yayoi Uno Everett and Frederick Lau. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2004: 72-84.

8 In this respect, the present essay is modeled after the reading/interpretive strategies described in Ellen Koskoff’s “Miriam Sings Her Song: The Self and the Other in Anthropological Discourse” and Susan Rubin Suleiman, “Transgression and the Avant-Garde: Bataille’s Histoire de l’oeil.”

9 Later, Butler remarks that “to say something is phantasmatic is not to say that it is ‘unreal’ or artificial or dismissable as a consequence. Wielded within political discourse, the real is syntactically regulated phantasm that has enormous power and efficacy.” (Butler 187-188.)

10 Emphasis in original.

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