Cyborg Violence: Bursting Borders and Bodies with Queer Machines

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VisualizeUs, "Cyborg Woman."

In the May, 2001 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Anne Allison critically examines so-called "violent media." Popular discourse about the causes of youth violence (school shootings being the prime example) tends to blame the entertainment industry's depictions of violence. Allison questions this broad assumption by looking at one particular genre of violent entertainment: cyborg violence. Allison focuses on children's fascination with the "continually disintegrating and reintegrating body-parts of humans, machines, killers, and heroes" that constitute much of children's imaginary worlds.  In her analysis, she demonstrates that children's identification with cyborg bodies and related human hybrids undergoing constant transformation may suggest something other than the common belief that youth are increasingly more "violent."Reminding us that we must critically understand cultural practices before hastily condemning them, Allison sets out to consider how at least one genre of media violence might be productive rather than destructive for youth.  She argues that the kinds of transformations that cyborgs undergo resonate with children in their efforts to make sense of our post-modern world. Cyborg entertainment, for Allison, is a trope that "both reflects a ("real") world of flux, migration, and deterritorialization, and produces ("imaginary") new subjects whose queerness bears the seeds of a constructive potential for U.S. children today."

Editors' Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of other essays on violence and youth.  See Donna Perry's essay on youth in rural Senegal, "Fathers, Sons, and the State: Discipline and Punishment in a Wolof Hinterland," and Danny Hoffman's essay on youth in West African warscapes, "The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities."

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of other essays on the subject of media studies including: "Cosmopolitanism, Remediation, and the Ghost World of Bollywood,"by David Novak (2010); "Dislocating Sound: The Deterritorialization of Indonesian Indie Pop" by Brent Luvaas (2009); "Coincidence and Consequence: Marianism and the Mass Media in the Global Philippines" by Deirdre de la Cruz (2009); and "Moscow's Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk Show" by Tomas Matza (2009).


A cyborg standoff in Terminator 2

About the Author

Anne Allison (Ph.D. University of Chicago 1986) is a Robert O. Keohane Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. Allison researches the ways in which desire seeps into, reconfirms, or reimagines socio-economic relations in various contexts in postwar Japan. Her first book, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (University of Chicago Press 1994) is a study of the Japanese corporate practice of entertaining white collar, male workers in the sexualized atmosphere of hostess clubs. Her second book, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan (Westview-HarperCollins 1996, re-released by University of California Press 2000) examines the intersection of motherhood, productivity, and mass-produced fantasies in contemporary Japan through essays on lunch-boxes, comics, censorship, and stories of mother-son incest. Her current research is on the recent popularization of Japanese children’s goods on the global marketplace and how its trends in cuteness, character merchandise, and high-tech play pals are remaking Japan’s place in today’s world of millennial capitalism. Her third book, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (University of California Press, 2006), looks at the global fad of "J-cool": Japanese toys, character merchandise, and animation/comic books. Questioning the timing of this fad -early 1990s to the present--and the scale of its popularity on the global marketplace, the book considers how these trends are remaking Japan's place in today's world of millennial capitalism.

Additional Works by the Author

1.  A. Allison. "American Geishas and Oriental/ist Fantasies." Media, Transnationalism, and Asian Erotics. Edited by Purnima Mankekar and Louisa Schein.  (Accepted, July, 2010).

2.  A. Allison. ""Shakaisei no ima, kansei, kazoku, soshite nihon no kodomo" ("Sociality Today: Sentiment, Family, and Japanese Youth"." Kobougaku 4: Kibou no hajimari: ryuudookasuru sekaide: The Social Sciences of Hope, Volume 4: The Beginning of Hope: In a World of Flux. Edited by Todaishaken (Institute of Social Sciences, Tokyo University); Genda Yuji and  Uno, Shigeki. Social Sciences of Hope: volume 4 vol. 4 (Summer, 2009): 129-149.

3.  A. Allison. ""Pocket Capitalism and Virtual Intimacy: Pokemon as Symptom of Postindustrial Youth Culture." Figuring the Future: Youth and Globalization. Edited by Jennifer Cole and Deborah Durham.  (Summer, 2009).

4.  A. Allison. "The Cool Brand and Affective Activism of Japanese Youth." Theory, Culture & Society  vol. 26 no. 3 (Spring, 2009).

5.  A. Allison. ""The Attractions of the J-Wave for American Youth"." Soft Power Superpowers: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States. Edited by Watanabe Yasushi and David McConnell.  (Spring 2009).

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1.  Allison points out that people concerned about violence often only look at its negative effects and fail to consider how it might be productive.  What does Allison mean by "productive" here?  Why might this kind of analysis of violence be important?

2.  Fragmentation is at the center of cyborg violence, according to Allison. What kinds of fragmentation appear in this genre of media (see the Youtube links above)? Along these lines, how does Allison argue that cyborgs reflect our contemporary world?

3.  There are many references to post-modernism in the article.  How do words like "schizophrenia," "pastiche," "deterritorialization," and "reterritorialization" help to understand post-modernism?

4.  What is "queer" or "queerness?"  How does Allison use the term in her article?  How does queerness relate to cyborgs?  Why would queerness be considered a post-modern concept?

5.  Why might kids be attracted to anime like Sailor Moon (see the Youtube link above)? What does Allison say becomes "indistinguishable" for young viewers of Sailor Moon?  What might this suggest?

6.  Check out the website below encouraging children to create their own personalized manga.  How does the website support or challenge some of the arguments that Allison lays out in her essay?

Interview with the Author

Timothy Murphy:  You suggest that children's fascination with bodies that can be dismembered, reassembled, and transformed might help children make sense of the post-modern world in which we live. Today, nearly a decade since the essay was published in CA, it would seem that children's interests in "cyborg violence" or related media would have changed. Could you speak a bit about some of the more recent cyborg-type media that children are engaging in and how these media compare to those in your essay.

Anne Allison: Thanks for the question. Since doing this essay in 2001, I finished researching and writing the book I published in 2006, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (University of California Press). Interested in the ways fantasy gets reshaped, rewoven, and reinhabited as a global property  “flows” into local(ized) sites, I examine here four waves of Japanese youth goods as they move from Japan (where they were created and produced) to the US (as one site of their global consumption). All four of these properties—Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Sailor Moon, tamagotchi and Pokemon—are cyborgian in some respect. If not literally an amalgamation of organic material and machine (Haraway’s definition of cyborg), each plays with the border of animate and inanimate, human and non-human, life and death. And each sports characters whose bodies continually undergo dismemberment, reassemblage, and transformation: the essence of what I call the “logic of fantasy” that not only fascinates players/viewers but also engenders (and mimics) the capitalism of our times. In my CA piece, I speak more about violence and cyborgs: how cyborgs like RoboCop wage violence against others but are also entities whose very condition of being is violence itself (a killer robot “born” from fusing the brain of a dead cop with state-of-the-art technology). My argument, as you point out so well in this supplemental page, is that children who are drawn to such violent media/cyborg violence are drawn not merely to the explosiveness of the violence but also, and perhaps even more so, to the new conditions of possibility—of restitched, remade, retooled assemblages—embodied by the cyber-subject.

You ask if in the nearly ten years since my essay came out in CA if the logic of cyber fantasy I examine there has changed in children’s media. To be quite frank, my research interests have shifted since then and I haven’t really stayed on top of either cyborg violence or children’s media. So, I can’t speak with any expertise about these fields today. But what I have observed in what could be called cognate arena—odd as this may seem, I’d use examples like hook-up culture on American college campuses and the moe craze amongst otaku (compulsive fans of anime/manga) in Japan—is a similar fascination with a highly volatile and continually changing/rearranging constellation of pieces, body-parts, and accessories that seems very much a part of desire, subjectivity, and perhaps sociality (human relationality) amongst youth today. In a course I taught on hook-up culture at Duke University three years ago, I learned from students how decentered, even explosive, were their sexual attachments. Dating is pretty much out. So are PDA (public displays of affection). What’s in is a form of relationship that is non-relational--instantaneous “hook-ups” with as  “cool” a partner one can find that are quick, non-lasting, and “insignificant” (as in signifying nothing meaningful or deep). As these students described them, hook-ups are defined as much by coming apart as by coming together; over as soon as they’re begun, these are intense physical interactions with people whose name one need not know.  As one young woman put it, you never have a hook-up with someone you’re actually interested in because a hook-up stops rather than spurs a “relationship.”  So, in a sense, the hook-up is destructive (destroying relationality). It also engages subjects at the level of body-parts that continually get dismembered, reassembled, and transformed—or at least replaced (redhead with purple shoes one night, blonde with silver mini the next). Are hook-ups pleasurable, I asked students? Sometimes, they said. But as (or more) important, it seemed, was that they weren’t relationships.

If the hook-up represents a kind of fantasy, or desire, its structure seems similar (at least in certain respects) to what is called “moe” by otaku (fans) of anime (animated videos, cartoons, movies) and manga (comic books) in Japan. A word that literally means “to bud” but is a pun on the homonym “to burn,” moe refers to both the object and affect of desire—what Patrick Galbraith, the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia (Kodansha, 2009), defines as “getting fired by budding young beauties.” Usually the reference is to a particular character who is an amalgamation of particular (lolicon and bishōjo) body/dress/accessory parts: long blue hair, white frilly apron, big dog-like eyes, pink ribbon. The best (if controversial) book I’ve read on otaku and moe is by Derridean scholar Hiroki Azuma and now out in English, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (Minnesota Press, 2009). In his view, consumer behavior in Japan today gravitates towards a multiplicity of individual elements (what he calls “chara-moe” or moe driven by characters) that displaces the coherency of an(y) overarching narrative.  These elements form, and derive from, a database (much like the complex charts of powers, secrets, and strengths that constitute the “pokemonology”  I write about in Millennial Monsters) driving a new post postmodern phase of consumption: what Azuma calls “database consumption” (versus the “narrative consumption” of an earlier era). In terms of desire, Azuma writes that otaku no longer respond emotionally to the stories of manga/anime or identify with the characters as they did in the 90’s. Rather, otaku in the 21st century “have steadily categorized batches of moe-elements into databases that sustain.. efficiency” (2009:108).  Another theorist (and practitioner) of otaku, Toru Honda, goes further, advocating that relationality with 2-dimensional characters is a purer form of “love” than that with human others.

"Tamagachi ."

TM: Some theorizations of post-modern desire suggest that the impermanence, uncertainty, and inauthenticity of everyday life do not always lead people to identify with fragmented/hybrid/queer subjects and aspects of life.  Rather, a world in which nothing seems permanent or real can also drive people to search for the "authentic," "real," "bound" and "stable."  In your research on youth, have you encountered this type of response to the post-modern moment as well?  If so, how might these two types of responses work with/against each other?

AA: This is a great question and, yes, I certainly have found the desire, and quest, for something “authentic, “ “real,” “bound” and “stable” as one response to the post-modern moment by youth as well. As you know, most of my research is in Japan. My new project is on the particularity of the present moment and how this is getting experienced, conceptualized, and imagined in terms of temporality (a sense of futurelessness) and spatiality (a sense of homelessness) by many youth in Japan today. The word I often hear in Japan is “ibasho which basically means where one feels comfortable and at home. Many Japanese youth today say they lack an “ibasho” and desperately crave one. Many are also nostalgic for the kinds of homes and stabilities their parents enjoyed. What puzzles me though is that the latter also came with a lot of baggage: incredible pressure to perform and conform which helped to yield the off-the-charts performativity of Japanese workers, students, and mothers but also contributed to such phenomena as death-by-overwork, disturbing levels of bullying in schools, and “social withdrawal” (where someone withdraws usually into one room and doesn’t emerge to work, attend school, or communicate with others) by as much as 1,5000,000 youth today. So, what you ask at the end of your question is right-on: how might these two responses work with/against one another? My sense is that there is a progressive potential in the kind of “database” sociality or cyborgian subjectivity we’ve discussed already. To align oneself with a network of others or commonwealth of (placeless) places based not on such territorialized rubrics as kinship, class, nation-state, or workplace but on the desire, or need, to simply survive and care for one another (and the planet) , for example, could generate a different kind of sociality in the world today. We already see signs of a decentralized form of subjectivity taking place. But now we need to move beyond the privatization of today’s market economy and reach out towards others in new alliances and assemblages of the social. Hardt and Negri call this the multitude (and, more recently, the common-wealth). Beyond the kind of hedonistic, me-centricism of the hook-up to something where we are more open to and, in Lauren Berlant’s word, more compassionate, to others. But what will generate this?????!!!!

TM: In the article, you cleverly link cyborg violence to identity construction among youth.  What about violent media that do not involve cyborgs and other explicitly queer protagonists? How might one begin to theorize children's interests in other genres of violent entertainment?  How might violent media be productive in ways that we have not yet considered?

AA: Oooooohhhhh. Violent media that has no progressive potential as I see it in the queer cyborg? Well, there’s plenty of that around. And violence transcends media and goes way beyond kids. I’m inspired here by the work of Ghassan Hage  (Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society, 2003) and Arjun Appadurai (In Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, 2003) both of whom argue for the increased evidence, in recent years, of people (residents in, as much as refugees from, home countries) who experience, in Appadurai’s term, “an anxiety of incompleteness.” Driven by global conditions of neoliberalism, escalating inequalities and privatization, the militarization and corporatization of everyday life….. a deep sense of insecurity (both material and psychic) is spreading in more and more peoples’ lives around the globe. Longing to belong—somewhere, to someone, to some future—makes even those who are comfortably in the (ethnic/classed/gendered) majority feel paranoid and threatened. Such conditions of precarity are responsible, at least in part, for the spread of “paranoid nationalism” (Hage) and ethnic cleansing campaigns (Appadurai) across the globe since the 1990s. In Japan too, one sees a rise in nationalism and right wing patriotism amongst disenfranchised workers and youth. One also sees rampages of violence like the recent school attacks that have occurred in China (blamed, according to some media accounts, to the rapidity of recent changes and socio-economic transformations that have exposed so many to precarity). Well, the question was actually about violent media and not socio-economic conditions lending themselves to, or getting expressed in, violence. And the short answer is, yes, there is a range of violent media where violence is differentially constructed. But how precisely violent media might be productive in ways we have not yet considered is a question I’ll need to ponder.

Thank you for these great questions and for inviting me to respond. I welcome feedback and input from you all!


Related Readings

Appadurai, Arjun.  2006.  In Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Durham: Duke University Press.

Azuma, Hiroki.  2009.  Otaku: Japan's Database Animals. Minnesota:  University of Minnesota Press.

Galbraith, Patrick.  2009.  The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan. New York: Kodansha International.

Hage, Ghassan.  2003.  Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society. Annadale: Pluto Press.

Haraway, Donna Jenne.  1991.  Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri.  2004.  Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press.

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