On the one hand, such images and juxtapositions can be understood as fantasy-enabling and perhaps are used to take people’s minds away from the heavily controlled and regimented society in which they live and work. Understood from this perspective, these images are used, consumed, and valued because of their unreality. On the other hand, if sexually explicit manga, magazines, or films can be read as reinforcing traditional Japanese society and its values (family and stability), many of the original difficulties presented by these texts and images return. Even though certain images might not be read as saying “perform acts of sadomasochism or rape against women,” they still function in maintaining a certain status quo of Japanese society, specifically the limited opportunities available to women through the reinforcement of traditional familial, occupational, and gender roles. Even after arguing against the perceived reality or “truth” of the acts depicted in certain eromanga (both men’s and ladies’), Anne Allison ultimately concludes that “eromanga are misogynistic. That they embed and thereby foster an ideology of gender chauvinism and crude masochism is also irrefutable” (Allison 78).
In effect, we have returned to the reading model described in the previous section where the image functions as some sort of imperative speech act. Instead of the direct “do this to women” interpretation put forth by MacKinnon and others, the reading of sexually explicit and violent Japanese images described above is more indirect, stating “don’t really do this, do this instead.” The aims and outcomes of such indirect imperative statements are just as troubling and disturbing. To make matters even worse, other authors have considered the negative consequences of similar indirect speech acts in manga that do not rely on depictions of extreme sex and violence. In her discussion of the popular science fiction manga and anime (animated film) Sailormoon, Mary Grigsby describes how the superhuman powers possessed by the female main character do not necessarily function as a positive role model for young girls, but serve instead to reinforce traditional gender and societal roles for Japanese women where, in her words, “to be feminine is to consume market goods and be consumed by men” (Grigsby 207).26Manga and anime have been interpreted according to the direct model as well. Kanako Shiokawa, for instance, has examined the concept of cuteness (kawaii) in girls’ comics (shojo manga) and its ability to foster passivity, timidity, and weakness in young girls. For Shiokawa:
The notion of “cute” in Japan … helps one conform to the age-old aesthetical and social values that favor peace, harmony, and self-discipline, while scorning conflict, disorder, and conceit. Individuality (or, more accurately, being unique and standing out in the crowd) and independence (or pronounced self-reliance and self-sufficiency) traditionally are considered threats, especially in women … . (Shiokawa 120-121)
It would seem that Japanese manga, anime, and, presumably, non-animated films do not have much to recommend to them. Whether or not such images depict sex or violence and whether or not they portray strong female characters, in the final analysis, they all end up reinforcing, cultivating, and perpetuating a negative social reality that is dependent upon traditional gender and societal roles of women, a possibility suggested by MacKinnon in regards to pornography in general. While this could be understood as a rather strong condemnation of a wide variety of images and forms, as well as Japanese culture, I believe it actually points to some of the limitations of the “image as speech act” model. Given the vast popularity of various forms of manga, anime, and even pornography, we would have to believe that millions and millions of Japanese consumers of these and other materials (not to mention other consumers worldwide) are unable to form their own opinions about such materials. At the same time, we are being asked to admit that, in these particular cases, any image contains and therefore presents a single meaning only, a meaning that can be read right off its surface. As such, there really is no act of reading whatsoever; instead, there is simply an act of presentation that orders and demands that certain actions be taken and certain roles be filled.
Rather than viewing these and other images as reflecting or constructing a sort of social reality – specifically one that subordinates and objectifies women – it is possible to view manga, anime, and pornographic films and images as sites of engagement that acknowledge the role of the reader and his or her ability to decode, encode, interpret, use, and misuse texts. At the same time, individual readers and their complex backgrounds – in terms of social, political, economic, gender, sexual orientation, etc. – not only assist in framing and situating images or texts, they also create a set of alternative readings that are foreign or different to the specific “reality” of the mediating reader. As a result, the set of possible interpretations is – if not infinite – exceedingly large. What this means is that, contra the “image as speech act” model described above, these images do not and cannot mean any single thing. Understood in relation to the fantasy/reality I have been describing, Setsu Shigematsu has described how:
… even reality is typically differentiated by what is called the external/physical/social reality and the internal/mental/psychological and psychic reality. It is in between these realms of reality that manga is consciously read, mediated, and elaborated on through a reader’s internal/mental processes, and variously rejected, extrapolated, and/or interwoven into a personal repertoire of memories, pleasures, fears, and fantasies. The making of a reader’s personal fantasies, which are individually designed and contrived might then be understood as constituting a different dimension of fantasy – a singular/internal space of difference that is variously elaborated on and repeatedly transformed. (Shigematsu 133)
As an example, Shigematsu considers the rape scenes that frequently occur in ladies’ eromanga by noting how “… it is easy to assume that the reader identifies primarily with the heroine of each story [and who typically endures the rape].” However, she continues, “the identifications are multiple” and, therefore, the “subject of desire – the woman who buys and reads the manga – may identify with the position of the sexualized object, and/or the transgressing attacker, and/or the voyeur” (Shigematsu 144). Often these multiple perspectives are reflected in the graphic layout of the comics themselves as successive frames of the strip offer different angles and viewpoints in the unfolding narrative allowing the reader/viewer multiple modes of access and ways of understanding the action unfolding on the page. Ultimately, Shigematsu believes, the fluid and concomitant acts of both reading and identification “attest to the ways in which women seek to occupy various positions that may traditionally or formerly have been the proscribed social privileges of men” (Shigematsu 145). Furthermore, by subtly reconfiguring acts that might typically be conceived as reinforcing certain stereotypical conceptions of women and women’s sexuality, such scenes actually play with and are ultimately “dependent upon the existing cultural-symbolic order, with its prohibitions and taboos” (Shigematsu 146). Instead of reinforcing or bolstering these and other deeply entrenched cultural and societal formations, rape scenes and other violent or “deviant” sexual acts in ladies’ eromanga actually play with, exploit, and highlight the artificially constructed boundaries of these formations.
Interestingly, Zorn never reveals with whom he may or may not identify in these images: the victims, the attacker(s), or a hidden onlooker. For Ellie Hisama and other critics, it has always been assumed that Zorn identifies with the attacker(s) or, possibly, the role of the voyeur. Presumably, it is just as possible that he is not identifying with anyone or, perhaps more likely, everyone. It is Shigematsu’s ideas on the ability for ladies’ eromanga to confront and contest the prohibitions and restrictions imposed from without that most closely resembles Zorn’s own views regarding the place, use, and function of these and other images within his overall musical poetics.
Fantasy and Reality and Zorn’s Poetics of Music
In a response to his critics over the place of these and other images on his CD covers and liner notes, Zorn issued a statement in which he explains that the images:
… are not meant as a condemnation of one particular group … they have been used for their transgressive quality, illustrative of those areas of human experience hidden in the gaps between pain + pleasure, life + death, horror + ecstasy …27
Zorn’s use of the word “transgressive” in this particular quote is not innocent, carrying with it both a specific meaning and reference. Around the time he began to issue recordings that contained images such as those I have been discussing, Zorn’s musical thought appears to have been greatly influenced by the thought and writings of George Bataille.28 In fact, Zorn most certainly encountered the images of Leng Tch’e and Fu Chou Li in Bataille’s The Tears of Eros. In the unattributed liner notes included with Black Box (“On the Artwork”), the author explains how “further research in to the relationship between violence and the sacred led Zorn [in 1990] to the writings of Georges Bataille.”29 A long quote from Bataille on the effects of these photos follows:
This photograph [of Fu Chou Li] had a decisive role in my life. I have never stopped being obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic and intolerable. I wonder what the Marquis de Sade would have thought of this image, Sade who dreamed of torture, which was inaccessible to him, but who never witnessed an actual torture session. In one way or another, this image was incessantly before his eyes. But Sade would have wished to see it in solitude, at least in relative solitude, without which the ecstatic and voluptuous effect is inconceivable.
[ … ]
What I suddenly saw, and what imprisoned me in anguish – but which at the same time delivered me from it – was the identity of these perfect contraries, divine ecstasy and its opposite, extreme horror.
And this is my inevitable conclusion to a history of eroticism. (Liner notes, Black Box; Bataille, Tears 206-207)30
In a passage not included in the notes to Black Box (indicated by the ellipsis), Bataille writes:
Through this violence – even today I cannot imagine a more insane, more shocking form – I was so stunned that I reached the point of ecstasy. My purpose is to illustrate a fundamental connection between religious ecstasy and eroticism – and in particular sadism. From the most unspeakable to the most elevated. (Bataille, Tears 206)
Filtered through a Bataillean lens of eroticism and horror, Zorn intends for these (and other) images and the music they accompany to be read according to Bataille’s notion of transgression. Therefore, in an effort to better understand Zorn’s own reading of these images (not to mention his music), we must come to terms with certain aspects of Bataille’s thought.
Bataille conceives of the realms of the social, the subjective, and the discursive according to two categories, that of the homogeneous and that of the heterogeneous. Homogeneity – sometimes referred to as the category of project – is predicated on utility, production, stability, and rationality. Understood as the “commensurability of elements and the awareness of this commensurability,” the homogeneous existence of society, the individual, and discourse is “sustained by a reduction to fixed rules based on the consciousness of the possible identity of delineable persons and situations; in principle, all violence is excluded from this course of existence” (Bataille, “Psychological” 137-138).31Heterogeneity describes those “things” or acts that are directly or indirectly forbidden from appearing in the homogeneous realm. The heterogeneous includes aspects of the sacred, religious, and magical (due to a reliance on belief and faith as opposed to scientifically verifiable knowledge), acts of violence, madness, and excess, as well as taboo actions or rituals. Where the realm of homogeneity depends upon productive expenditure and utility, the realm of the heterogeneous is predicated upon unproductive expenditure and waste. Included within the realm of the heterogeneous, Bataille considers “… the waste products of the human body and certain analogous matter (trash, vermin, etc.); the products of the body, persons, words, or acts having a suggestive erotic value; the various unconscious processes such as dreams or neuroses; the numerous elements or social forms that homogeneous society is powerless to assimilate … . In summary, compared to everyday life, heterogeneous existence can be represented as something other, as incommensurate [with homogeneous existence]” (Bataille, “Psychological” 142-143).32
Initially, it might be tempting to equate the domain of the homogeneous with “reality” and that of the heterogeneous with “unreality,” or, perhaps, fantasy. Such a view, however, would only serve to oversimplify the complex interactions and interdependencies Bataille perceives between these domains. For example, while Bataille does describe the homogeneous as the “sphere of activity ([or] if you prefer, the real world),” he also considers the realm of the homogeneous as “the mirage in which activity encloses us” (Bataille, “Method” 78, 85). At the same time, wars, vermin, eroticism, violence, and other heterogeneous phenomena are certainly very “real” occurrences. However, because we choose to ignore these and other phenomena in an effort to maintain some sense of homogeneous stability, Bataille refers to our tendency to describe the heterogeneous as “aberrations”: “What is the worst aberration? That which we ignore, gravely holding out for wisdom?” (Bataille, “Method” 84).33 Elsewhere, he refers to the “practical unreality” of heterogeneous elements (Bataille, “Use Value” 97).
In an attempt to avoid any sort of clear-cut binary divisions between these two realms, Bataille proposes, instead, a continuum where the realms of the heterogeneous and the homogeneous are understood as existing in a complementary, non-oppositional relationship where the homogeneous necessarily depends upon the heterogeneous to justify its existence. The homogeneous is the willful suppression of otherness, taboo, prohibition, and fantasy in the greater interest of progress, stability, and rationality. The elements or objects of the heterogeneous realm are just as “real” as those of the homogeneous; they are only made to seem unreal, undesired, or fantastic through the rationalizing processes of homogeneity.
When the heterogeneous intrudes upon the realm of the homogeneous, the subject experiences a “force or shock” that precipitates alternative forms of (non-)knowledge, a momentary insight or experience where everything that had been conceived as rational, logical, and beyond any sort of reasonable doubt is overturned and thrown into question. Bataille’s paradoxical project is therefore aimed at explicating those areas of non-knowledge that are concealed by homogeneous knowledge and whose goal is the realization of a subjective moment of “inner experience,” of a “luminosity without enlightenment,” where the notions of utility and reason are temporarily suspended.34 Such moments are achieved through acts of transgression.
For Bataille, transgression is not understood as the dismantling of boundaries but, rather, the playing with, pushing or testing of boundaries. With the transgressive act, the rational and the irrational, the beautiful and the horrible, life and death, rub up against one another allowing us to glimpse the proximities, interrelationships, and similarities of phenomena or modes of thought that had always been conceived as being distinct and separate. We recognize the beautiful in the horrible and abject, as well as the hidden horrors of the beautiful.35 Transgression, therefore, is the play of limits where those heterogeneous materials, acts, or concepts that have been excluded from homogeneous structures and forms are brought back into play.
In addition to actions such as eroticism, sacrifice, and violence, Bataille also considers art – specifically poetry – as being able to enact transgression. Poetry, Bataille writes, possesses “the particular faculty of disordered images [used] to annihilate the ensemble of signs that is the sphere of activity [homogeneity]” (Bataille, “Method” 95). For poetry to function in a transgressive manner, however, it is necessary to achieve and maintain a proper – yet tense – balance between the stable structures of homogeneous practices (poetry’s traditional forms, designs, practices, and linguistic usages) and those features that are designed to upset and destabilize these structures. Lacking a balance between constraints and freedom, transgressive poetry, conceived as poetry without any rules, cannot engage with more traditional forms of poetry and may end up constructing its own set of rules, congealing into another, newer, homogeneous mode of poetry.36
In different ways, the images re-presented on Zorn’s recordings depict, from a Bataillean perspective, heterogeneous acts (the extreme violence of Suehiro Maruo’s manga to the “unproductive” eroticism represented by the S/M scenes) as well as those instantaneous moments of transgression where eroticism and anguish collide (the photos of Fu Chou Li’s face as he is cut into one hundred pieces). However, to stop here would ignore the close connections Zorn perceives between his artwork and the music (“For me, my record covers are very important. The cover has got to follow through with what the music is about … .”). Zorn’s music does not aim to simply represent heterogeneous or transgressive acts per se, but attempts to wreak violence upon homogeneous musical structures, designs, and forms as well as any notion of what may constitute musical “logic.” Zorn’s music, in other words, attempts to transgress the boundaries that exist between what is typically understood as discursively acceptable, rational, and logical (homogeneous) and that which is considered irrational, unacceptable, and outside of such formations. Such an act requires an acknowledgement and recognition of homogeneous musical structures whose logic is ultimately pushed to the breaking point.
To conclude this section, I will consider how the songs “Speedfreaks” and “Osaka Bondage” (both from Naked City’s Torture Garden) can be viewed/heard as transgressive musical acts by examining how both of these tunes enact and embody a “play of limits.” Finally, I will consider how a specific reaction to Zorn’s music – a certain type of laughter – signals the attainment of (musical) limits and that accompanies our glimpse into the ruptures – the “hidden gaps” – that open up when determinate and rational meaning is overturned.
Example 1: Click to enlarge
“Speedfreaks” is an extreme (perhaps the most extreme) example of Zorn’s jump-cut style of composition. In this work, numerous stylistic/generic references, noises, and other sonic events fly past at break-neck speed; more precisely 32 discrete events pass before our ears in less than 50 seconds. Example 1 is adapted from the “chart” the members of the group used when performing and recording this tune.37 In this example, I have indicated each stylistic reference/noise event (sometimes with instrumentation), the underlying harmony or prevalent pitches employed in each block (where “(N.C.)” indicates “No Chord”), and the onset of each block (in seconds).
Audio Example 1: Naked City, excerpt from “Speedfreaks” from Torture Garden (1989) by John Zorn
The most immediate – if not the only – form of continuity present in this tune is a consistent rhythmic pulse that binds and connects each successive event to what has come before and what comes after, a consistency required for the performers (the song was recorded and performed straight through; it is not the result of any sort of “cut-and-paste” editing techniques). This pulse is maintained even in those moments where an extreme sense of rhythmic acceleration/deceleration or even suspension might be perceived (for example the half-time feel of the “Reggae” block in measure 9 or the Vocal solo, F-modal jazz block in measure 21).
Turning our attention to the unfolding harmonic/pitch design of “Speedfreaks,” we are immediately struck by the almost-complete absence of anything resembling a standard or typical harmonic progression. It is possible, perhaps, to hear the progression in measures 8 and 9 as projecting some sort of ii-V7 progression in B-flat; however, such a hearing is quickly thwarted by the noise/thrash block of measure 10. B-flat does make an appearance a bit later (in measure 15) where it now seems to be part of a V7-IV-I7 jazz or pop progression in E-flat. Of course, even here, such an interpretation depends upon our ability to hear and process this progression, a difficult task given the extremely fast tempo (where the quarter-note equals approximately two hundred beats per minute).
26 Many of Grigsby’s claims are tendentious; for a more balanced view, see Antonia Levi, Samurai From Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation, especially Chapter 7 (“Outrageous Women”).
27 Cited in Hisama, “John Zorn,” 83. A version of this statement also appears in the “On the Artwork” notes appearing in Black Box. Here, the wording is slightly altered and there is no mention of the image’s “transgressive” qualities.
28 Zorn’s familiarity with Bataille is also evident in the fact that his string quartet The Dead Man is inspired by a short story of the same name written by Bataille. One of the movements – or “specimens” as Zorn calls them – takes its name from another work by Bataille, “Blue of Noon.” It is also possible that this title is related to Tessa Hughes-Freeland’s film adaptation of Bataille’s story, Dirty (1992). Non-coincidentally perhaps, Freeland is often grouped together with other filmmakers associated with the so-called “Cinema of Transgression,” active since the mid-80s and centered primarily around New York’s Lower East Side. For more on this movement and Freeland, see Jack Sargeant, Deathtripping.
Zorn’s continued interest in the thought of Bataille can also be seen on a more recent recording, Moonchild: Songs Without Words. On this record, one of the tracks, “Le Part Maudit,” is a reference to Bataille’s influential thoughts of a general economy predicated upon waste and useless expenditure: the “Accursed Share.”
29 References to Bataille’s Story of the Eye appear in works that Zorn might have encountered while in Japan. In particular, Suehiro Maruo’s manga “Shit Soup” and Nagisa Oshima’s legendary film In the Realm of the Senses both include scenes that are clearly derived from Bataille’s work of fiction. The manga reproduced in Figure 1 may also be a reference to Bataille’s work of fiction, specifically the important role(s) placed upon and assumed by eyes.
30 Italics in original. The pictures of Fu Chou Li exerted a strong hold over Bataille and are referred to again and again in his writings. See, for example, Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, 120 ff and Guilty, 38. See also Peter Tracey Connor, Georges Bataille and the Mysticism of Sin.
31 See also Bataille, “The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade (An Open Letter to My Current Comrades).” For a critical examination of these concepts, see Rodolphe Gasché, “The Heterological Almanac.”
32 Bataille’s equation of the heterogeneous with waste and unproductive expenditure forms the basis of his “general economy” as described in his “The Notion of Expenditure.” This subject is treated more thoroughly in Bataille, The Accursed Share, Volume 1: Consumption.
34 For a useful description of Bataille’s thought, see Michèle H. Richman, Reading Georges Bataille: Beyond the Gift.
35 In the notes to Grand Guignol, Zorn expresses similar ideas: “Our fascination with Fear, Terror, and Evil, like Death itself, knows no racial, cultural, or religious barriers. It resides in our collective unconscious, binding us together with ropes we try, but are ultimately unable to sever. Only through violent trauma, or the convulsive viscera of artistic vision does it rise to the surface, reminding us that it has, in truth, been there all along.” (Liner notes to Naked City, Grand Guignol, n.p.)
37 Example 1 is a slightly modified form of Zorn’s handwritten chart of “Speedfreaks” that is reproduced in the booklet Eight Million Stories: Naked City Ephemera accompanying Naked City: The Complete Studio Recordings (n.p.).