Sunday, October 21, 2012

Grooves, Grafs, and Toons: Transnational Cultural Forms

I'm bumping this one to the top of the list because it's more current than ever. Another one from olden times at The Valve (November 2006).

Word up:
It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
–Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry

For the last three years or so I've been telling myself - and a few others as well - that anime and manga will do for the visual culture of this century what African-American music did for the musical culture of the last century:

Provide idioms that are adopted everywhere and adapted for local use.
I've now added graffiti to the list - not graffiti in general, but the kind of grafs I discussed in Shrine of the Triceratops, the contemporary sort that originated in America in the late 60s and early 70s and was then assimilated to hip-hop culture. The purpose of this post is simply to play around with the notion that grooves, grafs, and toons have been providing and will continue to provide the basic transnational idioms of musical and visual culture in the global age. This is an exercise in throat-clearing, thinking out loud, sizing things up.

Grafs on the move: Catch me if you can
Outa' Here


African American music - Europe meets Africa in North America - has been around the longest. I've seen a reference to minstrelsy in India in the mid-19th century, but have been unable to follow up on it. For the most part it seems to me that this florescence happened mostly in the 20th century; first jazz, then rock and soul (with the blues tagging along), and finally hip-hop. Each time a new set of idioms arose, they went international. By the late 20th century all the major idioms were performed in all continents (Antarctica excepted, though I suppose some of the folks working there might play a little something sometime - surely someone has taken a guitar or a harp there) and local hybrids have given rise to so-called world beat music - a marketing category for fusions of this or that African American idiom with anything else.

Why did this happen? Well, there is good old Western Imperialism organizing a international flows of goods, services, and ideas. But that just gets the music around; that doesn't make it stick, much less flourish and breed. For that the only reasonable answer is that it is locally attractive, not to everyone (it's not even that attractive at home), but to enough people to make a home for it. Why is it so attractive? The answer to that is not obvious, so let's leave it alone for now (see here for some fairly standard speculation).


Then we have graffiti. The standard story is that the modern idiom arose in Philadelphia and New York City in the late 60s and early 70s with simple “tags” aerosoled in publicly visible places. Ornate elaboration started in Philadelphia and then spread to New York, which it achieved its first flourishing on the sides of subway cars. As that died in chemical baths, the idiom spread to any and all available surfaces. When hip-hop came along in the late 70s, it picked up graffiti as one aspect of general hip hop culture and hence graffiti made the world trip along with hip hop. (At least I think that's what happened. I don't know how far it had spread before hip-hop picked it up.)

Photography and the internet have had a strong influence on graffiti culture. In a 2004 honors thesis at the University of Sydney, Ilse Scheepers notes:
Tags have always functioned as constant reinforcements that writers are still active, but with the development of the Internet and the growth of graffiti magazines, it is enough now to do a panel, take a photo, and walk away. The fact that the panel runs, that it even leaves the yards, is incidental, and in a way, a bonus. It is the photographic evidence that becomes most important in this case, and not the actual spotting of the work by another writer in another part of the city on the train it was done on.
Accordingly, graffiti is all over the internet (cf. Art Crimes) and if you googles “graffiti fonts” you'll find graffiti-styled fonts that you can download and use on your PC or Mac.

Ubiquitous though it is, my sense is that graffiti is still just below the mainstream radar screen, perhaps a reflection of the ambiguous legal status of what remains its defining activity, writing grafs in public spaces. Just why it has spread is not obvious, though I'm inclined to see it as a contemporary analogue of the cave and cliff art of early humankind and seek an explanation there.


That leaves us with manga and anime. Though manga as we know it originated in 20th century Japan, it's roots go back a millennium earlier in books where image and text often shared the page without a clear boundary between them. The modern form reflects the influence of Western comics and cartoons - e.g. Mickey Mouse was known in Japan in the 1930s - and began its florescence after World War II. Manga went anime in the 1960s with Astro Boy (a very popular and long-running manga title) and since then manga and anime have been moving along in tandem as two aspects of one larger visual and narrative idiom. Both have spread from Japan to the rest of the world, with America being perhaps the slowest to warm up to these forms.

It is by no means clear what will happen with manga and anime in the future. The issue that most interests me is that of pros and amateurs, for lack of better terms, which plays out differently in these three cultural forms.

The musical forms have always had a more or less professional class and acknowledged stars. At the same time, the idioms have always been within the reach of amateurs, from children though adults. Musical instruments and lessons are relatively cheap and informal performance opportunities and venues are plentiful. Graffiti culture is different. It is mostly a culture of amateurs, though some writers have managed to make a living as designers and a few have managed to paint grafs for hire. But there is no well-established professional class and no real “stars” with a capital “S.” Nor is there a considerable commercial establishment devoted to graffiti, as there is for both the musical idioms and manga and anime.

Manga is much like African-American Music, at least in Japan, with a large contingent of amateurs, some of whom go on to make a living at it. I'm not aware of a substantial amateur manga culture in America - though there is certainly some activity - but it is an idiom that is, at least in principle, accessible to amateurs. Pen and paper are cheap and plentiful, as are PCs and printers.

Anime is different from these other forms. In general, animation may be the most labor intensive expressive idiom humankind has invented - other than architecture and building, which have functional foundations. Amateurs can and do make animations, but it is not easy. The emergence of YouTube has encouraged the creation of AMVs (anime music videos), in which people take a favorite song and set anime clips and stills to the song. Some of them are quite creative, but this is a long way from scratch animation. It is conceivable that computer technology will put high-quality animation within reach of individual and-or small groups of amateurs. In fact, this seems rather more likely than the much-vaunted “Singularity” where computers surpass humans to become the most intelligent beings on the planet.

Regardless of how this falls out, anime is a very attractive idiom and is increasingly popular. Just as we need to account for the popularity of Afican-American musics and graffiti, so we must account for popularity of manga and anime.


Looking back over this, several things strike me:
1. Both African-American music and manga-anime have resulted from the cross-breeding of cultural strains that have had, up to the point of irrevocable contact, considerable distance and independence from one another. Graffiti isn't like that.

2. Both African-American music and manga-anime have become substantially legitimized and commercialized whereas graffiti has not. It remains at the margin.

3. Because of its marginal status, graffiti still gets some of its energy, its practice, from the mere space in which it exists. It's existence in those spaces is itself transgressive. This is not true of the music or the manga and anime. They may well have transgressive content, but their means of existence is not transgressive, hence the problem of commercializing them.
Finally, there is the question of the cyber-frontier: What's the role of digital hi-tech wonderment in all this? At least since Vannevar Bush's 1945 article, “As We May Think,” in the Atlantic Monthly, there's been a large literature about the wonders that computing technology has in store for us at some unspecified date, but possibly very (very (very)) soon. Where's the techno-happiness in grooves, grafs, and toons?

Obviously, digital technology has had, and will continue to have, a major role in the creation and dissemination of these expressive forms. That's not quite the issue I'm interested in. My sense - and here more than anywhere else I'm making it up on the spur of the moment - is that much of the imaginative force of both techno-utopian and dystopian thought comes from older visions of humankind, society, and the world. Futurism has been a creature of the past, following the mandates of hopes and fears given form and direction in previous centuries.

We need a new sense of possibilities, for good and for ill. That sense is not going to come by continuing to weave a techno-weft into a 19th-century imaginative warp. Perhaps these emerging grooves, grafs, and toons will provide a more suitable basis on which to weave the hopes and dreams of life on the New Savanna.

I'm outa here
Goin' to the New Savanna

1 comment:

  1. is graffiti something we'll take to Mars?
    that's too heavy I believe
    but your picture taking might help in that direction