In 2009, critic and philosopher Hiroki Azuma had a dream. It was a recurring dream (as befitting of someone well-versed in the psychoanalysis of Freud and Jacques Lacan), and riddled with complexities. In his own words, which open the introductory chapter of “General Will 2.0: Rousseau, Freud, Google,” it was “a dream about the society of the future.” One, he says, in which politics is informed by information technology, and its ability to visualize societal consciousness: the so-called “General Will 2.0” of the title — his updated version of a term coined by 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The premise of this idea is relatively simple: By harnessing the massive database of information on Twitter, Facebook, Ustream and online media, it would be possible to visualize the aggregate desires of people — similar to how Google anticipates and predicts search queries based on past searches. If such a visualization of the public’s desires were available to politicians, Azuma believes that it would be beneficial to politics as a whole. The idea is not that the politicians would necessarily have to be influenced by the data (thus succumbing to popularism), but rather that there are situations where it could help focus policy debates, for instance. To quote just one example from “General Will 2.0”: “Sometimes discussions among experts and (political) parties run amok. … Why not limit runaway deliberations with the anonymous public’s murmurs/tweets?”
It is a refreshingly practical hypothesis, and if the tech-savvy politicians abroad — such as U.S. President Barack Obama, who engaged in a Q&A session on Tumblr last year — are anything to go by, Azuma’s ideas may become a reality sooner, rather than later.
For Azuma himself, however, the cautious optimism that informed the book’s original manuscript, which was written between 2009-11 (translated into English in late 2014) has largely dissipated.
“Three or four years ago — when the Democratic Party was in power, or even prior to that — there was an understanding, even among politicians, that politics had to change,” Azuma says, as we chat in his office in Gotanda, Tokyo. Given the pace of our conversation, the massive, Internet-inspired collage-cum-painting in the background by young artist Kazuki Umezawa provides a fittingly frenetic backdrop.
“In the 2000s, there was a great hope that the Internet would change political interaction. But following the (2011) earthquake and the nuclear accident, from 2012 on, the LDP became extremely strong. Their political techniques are very old-fashioned: They’re using the Internet as a way to foster populism, not as a new form of communication or a new form of decision-making. The situation has actually gotten worse in Japan than when this book was published.”
During that same period, the specter of netto uyoku (outspoken ultra-rightist Internet users) grew increasingly conspicuous on Japan’s social-media platforms, suggesting that any “general will” might not necessarily provide a counterpoint to the nationalist tendencies of the current administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“What I stated in the book is that it’s important that one should recognize one’s own ugliness,” Azuma says.
He oscillates between both rapid-fire Japanese and English — sometimes even switching languages mid-sentence — as if the words being vocalized are constantly playing catch-up with the thoughts being processed in his head.
“The visualization of the unconscious means that we have to confront such ugliness: For example, many Japanese hate Koreans, and many Japanese forget war crimes, and many Japanese want to revise history,” he says. “So perhaps that’s the reality. In the long postwar history, intellectuals have forgotten such ugliness exists within our identity. But now we are confronted with the visualization of popular desire — the popular desire to hate our neighbors.”
Azuma says his book is “sometimes misunderstood, some people read it as: visualization of the unconscious can be the key to solving many social or political problems.” But he disagrees with that reading.
“I’m simply saying that such a visualization of ugliness is necessary for us to move forward to our ideal society,” he says. “Concretely, what it comes down to, is that this right-wing trend is not actually a right-wing trend. Rather, Japan has always had this right-leaning tendency and it’s just now being visualized. For the longest time, East Asia simply wasn’t confronting the reality that China hated Japan, that South Korea hated Japan, and vice versa. Diplomatic interactions used to only occur on the level of the national governments, so it never mattered what the citizens of the respective countries were thinking. But now the actual citizens can interact (online) … the fact that we can see that there’s a lot of netto-uyoku is actually a positive, because at least that forces a recognition of the reality.”
It’s a scathing appraisal, all the more so when combined with what Azuma perceives as the failures of the university system, which has traditionally been a bastion of left-wing thought.
“Universities are becoming worse and worse,” he says. “They’re not like the free and open spaces of old; now they’re all about extreme specialization, or about specifically practical fields.”
For somebody with such a renowned body of scholarly work, Azuma’s decision to distance himself from academia should not be taken lightly. He has published widely, addressing vast array of topics ranging from research on the philosophy of Jacques Derrida to his groundbreaking book, “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals,” which played a significant role in legitimizing the field of otaku (geek) studies both domestically and abroad. But now he self-identifies only as an “author” or “critic.”
“In Japan, I’ve been active as a critic for a long time, but being a critic isn’t just about writing, it’s about creating a space where criticism can be read, and I think that’s very important at the moment,” he says. “One of my main goals is to create a space where criticism can be read outside of universities.”
Azuma’s current activities are singularly focused toward creating such a space. Recent publications include a guide to the “dark tourism” in Chernobyl, and the upcoming first volume of “Genron,” a triannual magazine about philosophy, contemporary art, social movements and more. Aside from his writing, Azuma is busy running the Genron Cafe — a physical space, also in the Gotanda neighborhood just minutes away from his office, that features regular talks by guest speakers. This past week’s program included dramatist Shiro Maeda, critic Nozomi Ohmori and Azuma himself. The talks can also be viewed online, each available for live-streaming priced at ¥1,000 and supplemented with a live-chat — a feature that Azuma believes is key to effective debate within Japan.
“In European thought, the value of the audience is considered to be very low,” Azuma explains. “But from my experience as a critic, in Japan, even when you have two people with completely differing opinions, if it’s just the two of them they won’t engage in conflict or dialogue. But if there are spectators involved, then they will.”
Azuma also notes that the inclusivity of the live-streaming option serves another purpose.
“This is a country where it’s possible to find intellectuals in any occupation, even if they’re in poverty,” he says. “I wanted to gather together those sorts of people. On the other side, some intellectuals are perhaps very intelligent when it comes to science or technology, but naive when it comes to politics or sociology.
“The ideal is to recognize the ugliness in ourselves and act accordingly different. If you’re watching at home with a beer in hand, you might write something like, ‘Shut up, you’re an idiot’ in the comments — that’s a response to your internal desire. But the people who pay ¥3,000 for a real ticket (to a talk in the cafe) will wear smart clothes and sit properly for two or three hours. There’s an understanding that you have to behave and conduct yourself properly. Both of those sides exist in humans, and for me it’s important that both of those sides are present simultaneously. You can come in person and enjoy the Genron Cafe on the ‘human’ level, or you can enjoy it at home on the ‘animalistic’ level while drinking a beer. Either one is fine!”