Must-see video on Youtube and the American quest for authenticity

Thanks to Gen Kanai for passing on this landmark lecture on Youtube culture and how it’s turning all Americans into attention whores who can only find validation through media exposure:

This appears to be on the same page as J Smooth’s observations about how even as the Youtube generation mourns Michael Jackson’s death, now that everyone is a media star they must deal with the same pressures of public exposure that Jackson faced:

16 thoughts on “Must-see video on Youtube and the American quest for authenticity

  1. Or maybe I should have said “whatever”

    All right, the question I want to pose in the comments section is:

    What are the core ethics of Japanese society? Does Japan “automatically grant identity and recognition” or does Japan have its own version of “the search for the authentic self” ???

  2. “All right, the question I want to pose in the comments section”

    Man, that’s the kind of question you build a graduate seminar around… I’ll sound in later.

  3. Wrote this while watching the video.

    Since “core ethics” and “authentic self” aren’t anything that we can quantify, we can only really talk about them in terms of storytelling. We tell stories to make sense of our societies and our place in them. In America, it seems as if there is a constant drive for validation of those stories (is individualism that depends on having others validate how individual you are really individualism?). In Japan and other countries that I am familiar with, you don’t have politicians constantly repeating that ours is “the greatest country in the world” – you only have to say this all the time if you have some kind of driving need for this to be true and doubt that it is or are frustrated that people doubt. People seeking validation of their individuality, which ironically is often seen in terms of belonging or collective experience, through new media is another facet of this drive to nail down stories about ourselves that make it easier to get by. (I also think that the second video is naive – was that dancer really doing it for MJ, or to be seen doing it for MJ? How much of the spontaneity and focus was part of the public act?)

    So if we are really going to talk about something as vague as “core ethics”, we’re pretty much coming back to the stories Japanese people like to tell about themselves which brings us back to the usual suspects – mass middle class, small, resource poor shimaguni, etc. Doubt in these stories is all over the place these days as it has been for all of the postwar period really – the employment “crisis”, youth crime, etc. Most of this commentary ends up taking an ideal and contrasting it with a somewhat exaggerated grim reality (Japanese college students and “reefer madness” for example). In recent bouts of angst, we do see one thing that is a pretty widely held view of how Japanese should live – the idea that Japanese should study hard, go to university, form a certain type of family unit (working husband, housewife, two kids), and work for a certain type of outfit (be it corporate or bureaucracy) until they retire. This has been a way of gaining automatic authenticity historically. This is now a more or less broken yardstick and Japanese people are living all sorts of lifestyes for better and worse, because of their own desire or because they have no choice. The fact that so many debates and discussions seem to center around high-growth era family bliss that never was certainly suggests this as a point of core ethic foundation. People play their roles, don’t rock the boat, and everyone dies happy…. or maybe more often not, but the idea of this being the “right” way to live still has considerable cultural force. This is pretty much how I live come to think of it. And let’s face it, there are whole cultural zones of the US where a specific religious belief coupled with a specific way of living give you automatic recognition in a community.

    In any case, what Japan as a collective is looking for right now is a story to latch onto. No longer an economic powerhouse there are a whole lot of alternatives for Japan being put forward – lifestyle power, miltiary power, etc. some have more cultural pull than others. Right now the codeword seems to be “change”, but nobody quite knows “to what?” So as the nation is doing this, we have individuals trying to find “authentic selves”as they have historically – “I novels”, communist agitation, dojinshi, new religions, niche fashion / consumption are all part of this. One recent trend in Japanese literature and whatnot has been an increasing focus on the self-other thing (Sartre) – do we even have an authentic self if it only exists in terms of others to compare it to? (ie. we can only be brave if there are others who are cowards). Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell are explicitly about this (a lot of sci-fi is come to think of it – “2001”, “Childhood’s End”, “The Dispossessed”). Recent award winning literature – Kirino Natsuo’s “Zangyakuki”, Yamamoto Fumio’s “Planaria”, just about everything by various Murakamis – is also obsessed with this theme more, it seems, than the “society vs. self” trope that dominated the early postwar novels of Mishima and Kawaba (well, Yama no Oto anyway). You could also argue that it is the major preoccupation with much of the output of Japan’s major “cult” directors – Miike Takatshi and Tsukamoto Shinya. The fact that these guys do even better with angsty college undergrads overseas than they do in Japan tells me that Japanese style self-other jibun sagashi hits a nerve in the “individualist” West.

    In Japan, as in America, this sort of search has involved acting out in public in various ways. It has been argued that the postwar student movement was primarily about a search for the authentic self (which could be expressed through violence), and since they never found it, they pretty much went over to consumerism (ie. a perm in Harajuku defining the self – consumerism and public performance) which has more or less collapsed with the current “lost generation” (both in terms of overall consumption and a breakdown into subcultures) who have dabbled with everything from radical pacifism to hating Korea to dakimakura (sorry) in search of ways of understanding society and themselves that they can live with and wind up with some sort of validation. So in the end, while we’ll never get a glimpse of either a social ethic or authentic self that isn’t relative to the telling, even if we are telling ourselves, the angst over not having clear answers will continue to drive our culture, high and low.

  4. “What are the core ethics of Japanese society?”

    I understand it has something to do with copying America simultaneously too much and not enough, and is best explained by people with the surname “Murakami” (in their trendy uptown apartments, to which, dear reader, I am often invited). Big crisis in the Japanese soul. If only their entertainment companies weren’t so ruthless about YouTube violations, they might have an outlet like Americans.

  5. The thing about the Search for the Self that always puzzles me is, will people recognise it if they find it?

  6. “The thing about the Search for the Self that always puzzles me is, will people recognise it if they find it?”

    This is the conundrum addressed by the philosopher Charlene in her treatise “I’ve Never Been to Me”.

  7. Mulboyne, well played. Did we ever find out who the philosopher was speaking to?

    (I had to talk some Japanese friends out of trying to do that song at a wedding a couple years ago.)

    As for Adamu’s question on the core ethics of Japanese society, all I can say is that the longer I am here, the more unable to answer that question I become. Quite humbling. How are we defining ethics? The class that junior high school kids sleep through?

  8. Jade, Mulboyne, and Peter remind me that I used 750 words to say “these concepts are interesting but not useful”.

    Interesting in retrospect – so young Americans are attention whores. What can we say about older profs who fancy themselves fighting on the “front lines” of stupidity (I was a bit surprised by the way the lecturer used those terms)? Why are they there? Professional validation that they are the “smart people”? Is this really about collapse or is it more about older white guys wanting their unquestioned authority back and imagining that they were so much better when they were 19? With that out of the way, there isn’t a whole lot left but a Mcluhan rehash.

  9. For me it’s about understanding how and why Youtube and blogs work the way they do. So this lecture was great in that regard

  10. True, those parts were very good (especially liked the camera bit). However, in the past we have seen commentaries on the photograph (mechanical reproduction and art) and television (the medium is the message) overplay the transformative influence on the psyche. We don’t have an answer, for example, to the question – are Youtube posters mostly interested in the “greater world audience” or sharing with a local peer group? When you look at something like Twitter – it seems like very clear “communities of friends” are springing up and blogs have that sort of function too. In a way, I think that the “alienation plus ambition plus exhibitionism equals awful” story is being overplayed.

  11. I think it’s important to consider the use of evidence in studies such as the one presented in the first video. Here’s a good Karl Popper quote:

    “I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appear to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, open your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirmed instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refuse to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still “un-analyzed” and crying aloud for treatment.

    The most characteristic element in this situation seemed to me the incessant stream of confirmations, of observations which “verified” the theories in question; and this point was constantly emphasize by their adherents. A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation — which revealed the class bias of the paper — and especially of course what the paper did not say. The Freudian analysts emphasized that their theories were constantly verified by their “clinical observations.” As for Adler, I was much impressed by a personal experience. Once, in 1919, I reported to him a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but which he found no difficulty in analyzing in terms of his theory of inferiority feelings, Although he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure. “Because of my thousandfold experience,” he replied; whereupon I could not help saying: “And with this new case, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold.”

    Link (cut, paste, trim whitespace):
    http://tinyurl.com/lr72jn

    I would sat that for now most of his theories are as substantial as nihonjin theories that say things Japanese pursue wa and so on.

    To put my point more simply … whatever.

  12. Matt, current academic writing / discourse is easier to stomach if you add your own preface – “This is one way of looking at it, take it or leave it.”

  13. Remember Warhol’s prediction that, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”

    F Scott Fitzgerald presaged the same phenomenon with his comment that, “There are no second acts in American lives.”

    Nor are Americans unique in their focus. Some years ago, UK surveys of childhood life ambitions showed a change from the traditional astronaut and train driver, to “being famous.” Recently deceased Jade Goody was a hero to many British youngsters, since her fame and financial success, based on absolutely no talent, education or personal effort, validates the hope that anyone can rise in the world just by being lucky.

    Reality TV shows like Big Brother and Pop Idol have helped create the trend, and YouTube ‘democratises’ it.

    Magibon is a key example of someone who has become famous through her YouTube performances which depend on (a) the wide angle focal properties of web cams and (b) an air of mystery. Her fame is actually very circumscribed, though.

    Surely many Japanese ‘talentos’ are merely successful attention whores?

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