Archive for the Pop Culture Category

Goodnight Sweet Prince; I Have Never Hated You

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , on June 30, 2009 by Bonni Rambatan
Michael Jackson, our undead prince

RIP Michael Jackson

I was a kid of the 90s; I grew up with the early days of manga globalization and post-surgery Michael Jackson. Friday had been surreal; I woke up and my father told me that Michael Jackson had just passed away. Surreal, because I somehow knew, that Jacko had been dead for a very, very long time — for as long as I can remember. Yet precisely for that reason he was also an immortal.

He was the reason I loved modern art and dances, aspired to work in music, digital painting, and video editing since I was a kid. Somehow I also felt that Baudrillard wouldn’t have made sense to me had I not known Jacko when I encountered him several years back, and had Baudrillard not made sense I would have probably gone on to learn quantum physics, my high-school passion, without glimpsing more into philosophy and cultural theory.


Dangerous, 1992

I remembered the day I knew of Jacko. I was five back then. My father had the “Dangerous” album, in the retro audio cassette glory, in the car. I went and looked through the album art. I was pulled in like I had never been before. Then, upon watching Remember the Time, I had fallen in love — with what? With the world of the future that Jacko inhabits. More than any other shows, even children’s shows, it told me that there is a world beyond; a world we have now, decades after Jacko, famously christened “hyperreality”. Michael Jackson introduced us all to a world of the uncanny, where we all betray the boundaries of life and turn into dancing zombies in all our technicolor glory; where every male is female and every white is black; where every consumption becomes a consumption of consumption itself; where every emotion, despair, death, and suicide becomes enjoyment; where every place is a dance floor, every person is a work of art, whose bodies can be modified, constantly transformed into one another, turned into surreal photographs and videos. As Mark Fisher wrote (about Off the Wall, but I feel this in all his works) his dance was “theology, the songs secular hymns to divine disco itself, the impersonal ‘force’, the inhuman drive, that makes life living but has nothing to do with the vital.”

Which is why Michael Jackson was our hero. He was a walking wax sculpture with no real life, a dancing zombie, a mask with no face beneath, a schizoid being disturbed and deviant, a cultural icon that transcends, betrays, and criminalizes sex in one fell swoop; and we all loved him and hated him for all these things. During these times where we are still debating how to box people into the inbetween (the “third sex”, the “subalterned”, etc), how to properly enjoy life and sex, how to be politically correct with other races and cultures, Jacko had since long ago transcended these boxes, “Peter-Pan-like”, as if they were the most trivial things. As imomus said,

He’s black yet also white. He’s adult yet also a child. He’s male yet also female. He’s gay yet also straight. He has children, yet he’s also never fucked their mothers. He’s wearing a mask, yet he’s also showing his real self. He’s walking yet also sliding. He’s guilty yet also innocent. He’s American yet also global. He’s sexual yet also sexless. He’s immensely rich yet also bankrupt. He’s Judy Garland yet also Andy Warhol. He’s real yet also synthetic. He’s crazy yet also sane, human yet also robot, from the present yet also from the future. He declares his songs heavensent, and yet he also constructs them himself. He’s the luckiest man in the world yet the unluckiest. His work is play. He’s bad, yet also good. He’s blessed yet also cursed. He’s alive, but only in theory.

Perhaps much scorn will be upon me from the Leftist community for giving such high praises to an icon of capitalism gone wild, but if many call themselves children of Marx and Coca-Cola, I am a child of Foucault and Michael Jackson. Needless to say my attitude towards culture has never been, and will never be, one of nostalgia, but one of obsessive forward thrusts in present life, Nietzschean and Wildean in the fullest sense, as embodied by the King of Pop himself. I never hated him; not when I learned of how destructive his lifestyle is, not when I learned of his child sexual abuse accusations, not when I see the “repellent whitened sepulchre” he had become; if anything, I love him even more — aren’t artists supposed to go to the end and break borders of sanity altogether? Jacko was a true artist, in both the best and sickest possible sense.

Good Night Sweet Prince

And flights of angles sing thee to thy rest

Goodnight, sweet prince. I have never hated you.

Why We All Hate Comic Sans

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Mmm, Comic Sans...

Mmm, Comic Sans...

It is a very interesting fact that a single font could create phenomena to such extents, spurring their own hate groups on one side (mostly designers) and being loved by another (mostly amateurs). What is it with Comic Sans? I am of course not asking about typography history or other things that make man’s love-hate relationship with the font contingent to historical events, as many would. Instead, a much more interesting question would be: is there something inside the font itself that makes it possess such a property?

What is typography? Here I would refer again to a Lacanian textual analysis. Is not typography that which is precisely an excess to the meaning of a word — that which remains, rather incessantly, after we get the entire meaning of the word? In this sense, typography may be considered the voice of the movable type, insofar as it is a ladder to get to meaning, but useless after we achieve meaning itself (I am here referring to the definition of voice by Mladen Dolar in his book A Voice and Nothing More).

Good typography, then, like the good art of voicing, may be compared to music, the music of written words — in Lacanian terms, its jouis-sense, enjoyment-in-meaning, enjoy-meant. Is, Comic Sans, then, bad typographical music? Why so? The first thing most of us associate Comic Sans with is childishness, immaturity, and non-professionalism. Comic Sans is thus like an annoying children’s music (it may not be a coincidence that many people I know who loathe the font also do not have that strong an affinity with children). This can be excellent, of course, in the right context.

What is the right context? As the name suggests: comics. Following comic art theory (read with Lacan), comics depict subjects drawn simply or use a lot of shadows to maintain the character’s subjective attachment — to put it simply, a lack, an unregulated place for the object little a, to maintain the little other. Is this not also precisely the case with Comic Sans, that there is too much room for subjective attachment due to its inherent lack in design?

In what sense can we talk about this? Let us now borrow a term from Derrida: that of undecidability. Comic Sans is precisely undecidable on the category it tries to occupy: On one side, there are the more professional fonts: Times New Roman, Helvetica, etc. On the other side, there are the obviously decorative fonts ranging from script-like cursive fonts to Wingdings, with Jokerman and the like somewhere in the middle. Does not Comic Sans lie precisely in the middle — not as a compromise between the two, but as a kind of spectral object that leans towards both ends simultaneously, just as a good Derridean undecidable object would do?

Comic Sans is thus the undecidable object of typography, an undead type. As such, there is a huge gaping void of lack, a spectral appearance of the object-cause of desire that on one hand captures the heart of sixth-grade first-time presenters, and on the other freaks professional designers out.

(But why is my title “Why We All Hate Comic Sans” if I acknowledge that some people love the font? The reason is tautological — is it not, today, to be considered a “we” in the digital age, we have to be more professional and shun Comic Sans for good? We all hate Comic Sans because the big Other does — we must hate Comic Sans.)

I’ll leave you with a video to give you more idea of the undecidability of our undead font. Feel free to comment your thoughts away.

Hentai and the Perverse Core of Japanese Censorship

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Hentai Manga by Fuuga Utsura in TSK

Hentai Manga by Fuuga Utsura in TSK

The Japanese law of censorship has always been a source of fascination to us porn researchers. Clearly, it does not in the least prevent the Japs to be perverts (but by all means I have no Illusions; I am not doing cheap stereotyping to the Japanese since it just applies to those few, most of which I love). One may even say that it takes Japanese porn producers to create such things as zenra Kung Fu (probably NSFW) or the seemingly mechanistic orgy of the famous 500 People Sex (totally NSFW) video.

Some people have discussed how the censorship law of not allowing the genitalia to be completely shown gives birth to such things as tentacle hentai. Although further research show that the Japanese have been making tentacle hentai as early as 1820, I would claim that this thesis is not totally wrong. Rather, however, I prefer to read it in the opposite direction: the Japanese have long realized that the phallus could not be adequately symbolized by the genitals alone, so fully showing the genitals would paradoxically reduce the sexuality of sex itself (recalling the Baudrillardian desperation). Is this not the reason many US porn filmmakers today are urged to learn from their Japanese counterparts how to film the non-genital, non-breast parts (lips, hair, back, etc.) in a way not less titillating?

Among the most interesting appropriation of Japanese censorship could be found in hentai manga. The censors are very scanty to such extent that it seems insignificant, only in the form of lines hiding virtually nothing. What catches my attention in particular is how the very texture of the censors above the genitals literally seem to function more to cross out rather than cover up — instead of covered because of some taboo, the genitals are barred, as it were, to prevent them from becoming full signifiers of the phallus.

The Japanese censorship law is already in itself a promise to enable this crossing-out of the real genitals in order to strengthen the imaginary phallus. The law does not at all say, ” You can draw anything but the genitalia because it is harmful!” Instead, it serves as a reminder, “Remember that your sexual potency is much larger than what it looks outside, do not fall into the illusion that the penis is all there is!” The crossing-out of real genitals thus paradoxically strengthens the imaginary phallus. The perverse censorship law does not castrate — it performs merely privation, thus putting pornographic art into the realm of pure fantasy in which castration does not happen (which is why underage-looking porn, rape, and incest is all the more popular theme in hentai manga).

Properly speaking, this makes hentai essentially a psychosis. For its Western counterpart, on the other hand, castration is implied and acknowledged but at the same time denied, making pornographic art in the West essentially a perversion. Literary work as a substitute of psychosis is of course the themes of Lacan’s later works of the Joycean sinthome (analogies can also be drawn between the unfamiliarity of Joycean writing to the more common writing and the strangeness of Japanese fetishes to the more common sexualities for the West), which thus makes it possible to claim that it pornography plays a crucial role in the psychosexual development of the Japanese society, which has family practices rather uncommon to their Western counterparts (the routine of bathing together, etc.). But as for a detailed analysis, I have not yet made it, and so for now I will say that this Japanese-versus-US sexuality difference idea is still questionable.

Another interesting point to note if we are to discuss hentai manga (and, in fact, manga in general) is how highly it treats the object little a, as proven by their extensive use in abstract forms to symbolize the gaze, the voice, the breasts, and the bodily fluids. Perhaps it is only by crossing-out of the genitalia, by putting bars over the real phallus, that Japanese hentai artists (and pornographers alike) can avoid falling into the trap of fetishizing the biological genitals, as the majority of Western pornographers do, and explore more on how to capture the object a in its visualizations. But on the other hand, however, this is also why the fetishistic tendencies of Japanese porn can easily fall into other, often more bizarre objects and situations.

Islam, Masculinity, and Homoerotica

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , , on October 3, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

The Muslim holy month of Ramadhan is finally over. If there is a bizarre lesson to be learned, I think it is to problematize how the month always becomes the gayest of the year. Now in case you are one of those who would get offended and start imagining hate mail and violent attacks, cool down for a moment and take a look at the category this is posted under. Yes, I am here not talking about Islam in general, but instead of films produced specifically under the Islamic context in Indonesia. Whether this applies to other Islamic films as well will need more analysis on my part (or if you have any info, feel free to comment away!).

In Indonesia, there is every year films produced specifically for the month of Ramadhan. What is of particular interest to me is how in many of those films the entire coordinates of masculinity change. One needs not be an expert to notice how, suddenly, we have all sorts of stupid themes of a friendship of two men who go on an adventure helping people out and finding the meaning of life, etc. We no longer have the standard stereotype of men with all the toughness and individuality that poke fun at friends, women, and life in general. Instead, we have a couple of men that are casual but never poke too much fun at anything if that may cause them to miss out on God’s more important issues — and all the while the two of them go out and do everything (“discover life’s meaning”) together.

Yes, I understand that of course the men are not homosexual, they sometimes depicted having interest in women, even in some cases their friendship is nothing but a cause of them being brothers, etc. But nonetheless the spectacle remains: two men always loyally traveling together in romantic primeval settings (nature, villages, tranquil city spaces, small mosques, etc.) telling their what life and truth means to one another — unless depicting characters who are gay, would one such a setting be possible in a homophobic society such as the United States?

Islam becomes interesting when looked at this way. All the terrorism associated today with Islam in fact could not apply to these “soft male” film personas — for terrorism, one needs a militaristic, dominant masculinity. In many Muslim films, on the other hand, one gets figures of an effeminate, careful male and his couple companion as the main characters.

Who are the audience of the films? Presumably, as with all TV drama series, 80% of them are women. So I am not saying that these are films made specifically for sexually repressed men to secretly fantasize homosexual activities. The phenomena is much more complex — something more resembling homoerotic fanfiction of Japanese manga, more commonly known as yaoi, in the sense that it is women who enjoy them more. Does the Freudian notion of women constantly fantasizing themselves to be men not resonate perfectly in such phenomena?

It turns out that Islamic films give a perfect chance to do this, by giving fiction contexts that enact a romantic, emotional bonding of two men under a search of a transcendent, spiritual mysticism — a perfect female fantasy. And what do we have here? Suddenly, all the gender questions arising within the complicity of Islam, erotica, and film culture becomes much more interesting and problematic. So much for religious homophobia!

Okami: Divine Subjects and Image-Instruments

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan


OK, most of you probably know that I’m a hardcore Wii fan by now, so I’m guessing it’s about time to put the gaming geek of myself to elucidate my Lacanian new media theories. One of the core concepts of my thesis is a new subjective experience I call the divine subject. This notion of transcendent subjective experience made possible by technology has its roots in cybernetics and the Macy conferences of the 20th century, as Katherine Hayles has explained in her 1999 book How We Became Posthuman. The postmodern notion of contingent bodies and posthuman transformations is not, as many may argue, a rejection of the liberal humanist subject of Enlightenment (“ethics is deconstructed with biotechnology,” “it’s all about the dehumanizing market,” etc.), but instead, as John Searle is well aware, a faithful move to take the Cartesian subject one step further: a desperate move to preserve the cogito under postmodernity — precisely because thought is the only viable experience, we need no more bodies!

What better piece of literature to illustrate the divinity of the subject than Okami, a game in which you actually take control of God herself? This game in which your avatar is the Japanese sun God, Okami Amaterasu (taking the form of the white wolf avatar, Shiranui), has as its core element the ability for players to create objects in the scenes by painting on them directly — you create suns by painting circles in skies, stars by painting dots, cut enemies by painting slashes, etc. This is a perfect example of what Lev Manovich calls the transformation from image to image-instruments. With the advent of the computer age, signifiers now has a double role: not only a part of the sign, but also something to be acted upon, a portal to another dimension.

What to say of today’s world of signs? It is no longer the Baudrillardian object-dominated world of simulacra in which subjects are fashionably dead, but a world in which the simulacra is an extension of subjective experience. The correct way to read the popular postmodern dystopia in which even our bodies is nothing but a simulacra is not that we are dead, reduced to mere Foucauldian sand imprints, but the opposite one: every simulacra may be our body. (Is this not the ultimate dream of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, etc?) With Žižek, the (Cartesian) subject is not dead, but preserved through its reflexivity.

Okami perfectly illustrates my thesis: with signifiers evolving from its original purpose to include a role as portals of actions, with subjects depending more and more on avatars (the contingent simulacra body, explained further on my theories of the psychoanalytic monitor phase) both for social interaction and individual enjoyment, it is only prudent to note the possibility that there is an evolution going on in the dialectics of the Symbolic and Imaginary orders. Does the divine paintbrush of Okami not show that the Imaginary self may very well lie outside the visible biological self?

The Dora Democracy

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , on September 1, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan
Dora the Explorer

Dora the Explorer

Our democracy today feels more and more like a derivation of the popular children’s show Dora the Explorer. The reason for this is clear: note how Dora interacts with the children as though they really have a role to play. Recall her catchphrase, in her awfully cute voice: “We could not have done it without your help!” — does this not echo our ironic presupposed faith today that our false democracy could not be possible without our help? In fact, as the show, it very well is possible.

The irony, of course, does not stop there. Are we not actually aware that there is something very wrong with democracy, as the viewers of Dora are aware that they are only playing games with the show (ask any children, they are not idiots)? The problem is thus not that our democracy is a false one, but how we react to the fact as such. Like watching Dora, the falseness of democracy itself seems to me to become more and more of a mere spectacle to today’s society — part of the entertainment comes from assuming that other subjects really believe in the spectacle. The problem is not that the show is purely a fake — if anything, we prefer fakes, in more senses than one — but that we view ourselves as subjects supposed to enjoy instead of active political agents, the latter replaced by a fantasy of subjects supposed to believe, i.e. the presupposed other children with whom Dora and Boots would not have made it past the three obstacles.

Let us go a little bit deeper and notice how cursors play a significant role in the show: Dora the Explorer introduces children to cyberculture. But at the same time, recall it’s message: your interaction is merely a fake (even in the games, I would argue, that take the form of non-avatarial play, but I will not develop that here) but nevertheless you must enjoy this fakeness! Topped with other warning messages in original DVDs and the now popular anti-piracy curriculum for kids, it seems that we are never supposed to actually play an active role in what seems to be an interactive realm.

I’m not putting up a case against Dora specifically here — in fact I actually like the show — but what I intend to bring into light here is that we should never dismiss the inherent ideologies that cultural artifacts for children play, despite its apparent cuteness and political correctness (the Hispanic Dora, etc.). If anything, we should not reject the conservative Right’s incessant ramblings of “What are they teaching children these days?” but instead turn the question around against them.

Stupidity and Perversion

Posted in Pop Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2008 by Bonni Rambatan

Quite a while back I watched the documentary Stupidity, which got me thinking again about the issue. While I don’t disagree that we generally like to see stupid people to make ourselves feel smarter, I like to be more critical — many smart people that I know nevertheless love seeing stupid YouTube videos even if they do not need further evidence that they’re a smart person. Sheer stupidity is essentially funny by definition, which is why we love them. But if we are to recall the basic formula of comedies, even since the time of Aristophanes, the funny part consist mainly of ridiculous plots, exaggerations, and sexual references (including the humongous fake penises strapped to the actors — apparently dick jokes have been around since the very start of jokes). In fact, what constitute humor is essentially ridiculous proportions, not so much a stupid mind. To take on Freudian definitions, these ill-proportions, be it of acts or in images, is always a symptom, a return of the repressed.

And as societies grow, societal symptoms change: in recent times there have been twists to humor and stupidity — it has taken on the realm of challenge, with youth exposing their tongue to electricity in MTV reality shows, and the realm of child gore, as the Happy Tree Friends (another MTV production) and Suicidal Squirrels webisodes prove. On the other hand fetishes are abound, as we are increasingly told to do wilder sex, with all those unfortunate anal beads and safe gag balls. As anyone who has ever tried out a weird sex stunt for the first time knows, let’s admit it, there is always a kind of stupid feeling inside. Then there are shock sites such as the infamous 2girls1cup, or the more recent idiotic stunt of cake farts, that people tend to watch just for the sake of the thrill. While all these need more analysis, suffice it to say for now that stupid humor is always connected with the death drive.

As I have mentioned before, the predominant way of handling the drive in the contemporary era, the predominant structure of society, is perversion. By this, we are disavowing the fact that we live in a “postmodern” world of total contingency, but secretly fearing that what we actually still secretly believe may really be true (“afraid to believe,” as Žižek put it).

The desire to watch stupidity is fundamentally a perverse one precisely because in doing so one turns oneself into an instrument of the other’s desire: stupidity only realizes itself fully under our gaze, a collective (televisional) gaze which is also ours — trip on a bucket alone in the house, and it won’t be funny, but do it in a mall, it would be hilarious. And there are also stupid acts that are only stupid when it is seen — try picking your nose and have a crowd accidentally spot you. As such, stupidity as a spectacle realizes the full element of its transgression: by watching the other’s stupid acts, we help the other to sin (and as we know, the sin is closely related to jouissance). Thus, do we, as reifications of our gaze, not take on the primary function of the pervert, by acting as an instrument of the other’s jouissance?