Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hello Kitty Everything: An Introduction

(The Mouth, Between Representation and Image)

“At the risk of enraging French-influenced literary theorists the world over, we'll take a stab at a boilerplate definition of post-modernism as it applies to Kitty. Basically, the PoMo set believes that there are no ultimate truths about things. That's an illusion. Instead, how one views something – a piece of literature, history, or vexing questions such as why Kitty and her twin sister Mimmy appear with mouths in videos, but sans mouths on store shelves – is heavily influenced by history, prevailing ideologies or otherwise socially constructed by bias, yearnings or whatever.”

The most obvious political problem that gets identified regularly with Hello Kitty is her lack of a mouth. The argument generally goes that this character design – whether or not it stems from concerns of minimalism or the relative degree of cuteness – embeds Kitty in an antifeminist discourse which is predicated on and reproduces the idea that women's value is contingent on their silence. This is a question that can't ever be sufficiently dealt with on its own terms, and I think in its own way it can be a fruitful problematic; but for my purposes here, and I think most of the time, understanding Hello Kitty as an object that operates on the level of the politics of representation is not the best idea.

If one takes the painting I Haz Mouth by Jason Han, painted for the Three Apples exhibition, and compares it with Renée Magritte's Les Deux Mystéres, the disjunct between the representative object and the image-object can be made clear. Magritte's not-a-pipe acts according to the rules of representation, in that the most common reading of the famous La Trahison des Images requires that the pipe of the painting is coded semiotically as a representative object, which the painted words then disavow, which actually reveals the disavowal that representation is predicated on. With Les Deux Mystéres, La Trahison des Images becomes simply a component in a larger painting that sees another realistic (at least according to the visual vernacular of advertising) pipe situated in a room with no attached textual disavowal. Without this disavowal, the large pipe can be seen to occupy a very unclear space in relation to the pipe with the disavowal. It is both unclear whether this is supposed to be the real pipe that the previous painting wasn't (although that can't be the case), or whether the presence of this pipe is even less real than the pipe that is disavowed, being some sort of dream of pipe-ness that the disavowed pipe constructs. And underlining this, the new pipe cannot be fixed in space in the painting itself, as the framed pipe with its disavowal can – the new pipe is either very large and presented against the wall, or very small and in the foreground of the painting, or somewhere between. This is all playing with the possibilities presented by the representative object, the thing which encodes in itself the knowledge that it is not what it appears to be, because it assumes the form of a thing which possesses more than form.

Jason Han's painting has an obvious structural similarity to Les Deux Mystéres, with the crucial difference that it pivots not around the semiotic movement of disavowal but instead of iterability. If one were to imagine a strict reproduction of La Trahison des Images, with the only differences being that the pipe was replaced by an image of Hello Kitty and the words were made to read “This is not (a) Hello Kitty,” then this might begin to make sense. The obvious reaction to this painting (barring a self-satisfied smirk at the clever intertextuality) is very different to the obvious reaction to La Trahison des Images - the Kitty version does not offer the possibility of “getting the joke.” To say that this is not Hello Kitty means that it is, most likely, a counterfeit Hello Kitty, or that it is in some other way unofficial or imperfect. And this is precisely because Hello Kitty does not represent; she is simply an image, or an icon, structured not by a knowledge of disavowal but by a constitutive excess, a knowledge that there is something more here that cannot be represented, analogous to human consciousness or agentivity.

In the thought experiment that Han represents in his painting, when Kitty (or Mimmy, if you're going to be a stickler about bow placement) finally gets a mouth, that mouth has no powers of expression – in fact, the mouthless Kitty in the painting is able to express her emotions much more concretely than the mouthed Kitty. When Kitty is given the tools to induct herself into the linguistic realm, her reaction is strictly reproductive; a mouth that speaks itself pictorially in a bubble that looks like a nascent, third Kitty. And to be clear, I would not argue that the preconditions of Kitty are such that she is without language – which is more or less just reiterating the critique of her with the politics evacuated – but that, because she works according to the rules of the image rather than the representation, her induction into the regime of language has nothing to do with expressive capacity and everything to do with the spaces she occupies in relation to other signs.

But, to keep the focus on her expressive capacity for just a moment longer, there is one other point about her lack of a mouth that is worth making, which is crystallized in the incident referred to as the Hello Kitty Murder. A Hello Kitty doll became the receptacle for the skull of a woman beaten to death and dismembered, which was discovered only when the teenage girlfriend of one of the gangsters who committed the crime confessed to the police. This “perversion” of Kitty is, of course, so compelling precisely because it falls – like almost all forms of subversion – within the structural coordinates of the context but outside of the accounted-for possibilities. For on some level, this murder is simply the playing out of the speculation on Kitty's anatomical peculiarity, the question of her bone structure being described without the comfortable cushion of hypotheses. And so her mouthlessness takes on a new meaning, a signifier in its own right of her complicity with human and inhuman systems. So whether you see her as the unwilling conspirator who reveals the plot as soon as she is provided the means to, or as the willing conspirator who stabs the backs of those she conspired with as soon as the opportunity presents itself is immaterial; either way, she is revealed to be complicit with the entire political economy which generates her, no matter what fantasies are applied to exempt her from them.

(Capitalism, Realism, and What is Popular)

“[H]er head was cocked innocently to one side, she had a bow in her hair, and she was cradling a very large automatic weapon between her chubby little arms. At first I was taken aback. The illustration was hysterical, but wrong. And the fact that this subversive act was committed by a white male made it that much more perverse.”

The core of this project is essentially an engagement with a round of debates that took place between a few high profile Marxist literary theorists that took place in the 1930s, around the revolutionary potential of Modernism and Expressionism and the fundamental questions of how to approach the popular, and Realism. The two main figures in this debate that I'm interested in applying to Kitty are Lukacs and Brecht.

I take Brecht's call for an alliance between “popular art and realism” as being the rallying cry for this project, and am in complete agreement with his definitions of the two:

“Our concept of what is popular refers to a people who not only play a full part in historical development but actively usurp it, force its pace, determine its direction. We have a people in mind who make history, change the world and themselves. We have in mind a fighting people and therefore an aggressive concept of what is popular.
Popular means: intelligible to the broad masses, adopting and enriching their forms of expression / assuming their standpoint, confirming and correcting it / representing the most progressive section of the people so that it can assume leadership, and therefore intelligible to other sections of the people as well / relating to traditions and developing them / communicating to that portion of the people which strives for leadership the achievements of the section that at present rules the nation.
“Realistic means: discovering the causal complexes of society / unmasking the prevailing view of things as the view of those who are in power / writing from the standpoint of the class which offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties in which human society is caught up / emphasizing the element of development / making possible the concrete, and making possible abstraction from it.”

These definitions seem at least as applicable to our contemporary moment, if not more, than they were when Brecht wrote them. As the debates about postmodernism seem to have exhausted themselves into declaring that it's over, and we see cultural attempts to work through the exhaustion of cynicism and black irony that revolve around po-faced expressions of sincerity and transparency, as philosophical circles begin defining themselves against the anti-realist tendencies that dominated during the same era, realism again becomes a word with some weight. To take Brecht's definition in this case, rather than defining realism according to some aesthetic regularities, is to reject the neoliberal injunction to operate exclusively in the realm of abstraction while disavowing it – or, to put it more closely to Brecht's terms, to reject the making possible of the abstract, in order to extrapolate the concrete from it.

Another way to put this would be to say that, “what we need now is a better sense of the real divide to be drawn, between the realism effect and affective realism, between what we've inherited as the 'look' of realism and what actually nails down and pins, like a shaking butterfly of the present, the feel of our historical moment,” as Evan Calder Williams did in his blog post On Laughter and Realism or The Moral Economy of a Fat Nude Man Running in Slow Motion Through a Shopping Mall Only to be Shot Point-Blank. What is needed, that is to say, is a realism which doesn't just look realistic, like Magritte's pipe, but which feels real, in ways beyond reflection or comprehension, that feels the same way (no matter the aesthetic vernacular employed) that living under the hegemony of financial capital does. But this is not entirely correct either, because it is beyond feeling; realism is, at its core, a question of (un)masking what is real, which is to say that which structures reality.

What Hello Kitty brings to the table in the contemporary search for realism is basically a series of likenesses. The first of these, and most obvious, draws on her closeness with the Pacific Rim discourse, and how she has come to stand as a sort of emblem of globalization. With the Pacific Rim being, as it were, the center of the globalized economy, Kitty's position as being both of and Othered within the Pacific Rim discourse is a good way to see just how this works.

She is of it in a very concrete way; Kitty is the creation of a Japanese corporation, Sanrio, and is very much a product of the aesthetic history of Japan and a product of the cultural moment in which she was created. I'll talk a little bit more about her specifically Japanese cultural heritage later, but it is important to note that Kitty was created in 1974, and Sanrio in 1973 (after having been the Yamanashi Silk Company for the previous thirteen years), which are important years in another Pacific Rim country's history, and also the global development of political economy since then. The coincidence of Pinochet's coup and Sanrio's turning into a company focused on peddling minor, communicative luxuries obviously does not speak to any necessary historical reality, much less a conscious organization of history; it is, however, a fruitful coincidence in how both of these things have developed.

In a review of Belson and Bremner's Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon, Gary LaMoshi gives a summation of the reasons that Sanrio CEO and founder Shintaro Tsuji made the switch from the Yamanashi Silk Company to Sanrio:

“His friends in the government of remote Yamanashi prefecture got him started promoting local silk and vegetables in the 1950s. But by 1962, Tsuji had expanded into rubber sandals that featured a flower design, reportedly observing, "If you attach added value or design to the product, they sell in a completely different way." As a result, he began commissioning cartoonists to create designs, eventually hiring his own to avoid paying royalties. Tsuji also obtained Japanese rights to Snoopy from Peanuts for Japan and exclusive (money-losing) import deals on Barbie dolls and Hallmark cards.”

This basically reads, to someone like me at least, like a (re)discovery of surplus-value. That something might “sell in a completely different way” is, almost certainly, the difference between a product and a commodity, the “added value or design” exactly a description of the aura that allows the commodity an appearance of holism which obscures the real labour relations that went into it, and which aura itself is the product of the originary commodity of labour. That Kitty is created precisely because of this realization is inarguable – but more importantly, that there isn't an immediate translation from the realization (that added value can make things sell differently, or using labour to obscure labour creates additional capital out of nothing) to the execution (of a proprietary character/brand/thing like Kitty). Instead, the attempt is made to deal with commissions, and (more interestingly) to license characters like Snoopy, which speaks to a number of things, but most pertinently given what I've just been talking about the sense in which Sanrio and Kitty operate as both of the Pacific Rim (a character like Snoopy can be imported relatively easily, and there is an assumption that a market for it already exists) and Othered by it (there is still the distance that requires a licensing contract, and the assumed market isn't quite there, and there is always something just slightly off).

To make this brief, I'll only bring up the last couple points I want to talk about in this section without trying to extrapolate them too much. First, I want to briefly quote from an essay by Mark Fisher, “SF Capital,” in which he talks about the trajectory of the “hype[r]verse,” the university of commodities which surround a text:

Star Wars is metonymically implicated in late capitalism in a way that 2001 never quite could be. What was bought and sold when audiences consumed Star Wars was not in any sense a single (aesthetic) object, but a world, a hype[r]verse. It is, of course, possible to retrospectively transform a single commodity into a series of objects-for-sale, and there are numerous, now very familiar, techniques and strategies that have been employed to this end … Star Wars was designed as a hyper-commodity; not so much a film as a fictional system - a plane of consistency that could be populated with any number of commodities. The switch is from a system of objects to a hype-system, where what is sold is abstract, fictional - but very real.
Hype-vorticism has been through a whole series of thresholds since. The simultaneous emergence of the Transformers toys and TV series in 1984 was one enormously significant moment: the toys were designed as 'characters' in a 'narrative', in part developed by Marvel, who also published a Transformers comic book series. What began to disappear here was the sense of an original or primary entertainment 'text', surrounded or 'supported' by secondary commodities, a disappearance that has been achieved almost completely now. Remember that moment in Jurassic Park when you realise that the logo of the theme park in the film is exactly the same logo on the Jurassic Park merchandise you can buy outside the cinema? And, with Disney's Toy Story, the loop between advertising, fiction and commodity achieved an unprecedented tightness: here was a film about toys/commodities, some of which were already-established brands, some of which were established precisely by the film (Buzz Lightyear, Woody) all of which were able to commingle on a single plane of (digital) reality.” (italics his, bold mine)

What is relevant here, of course, is that this “disappearance that has been achieved almost completely now” is very much exactly what was achieved almost thirty years prior, with Hello Kitty. This is what makes Kitty such a fascinating problem for anyone who is interested in how texts work, I think – whether you take the understanding of the marketing world, which Fisher lays out pretty adeptly, that the text is that which unifies otherwise unrelated commodities, or if you take a more liberal understanding of text as, for instance, textile, stuff thats been weaved together, I still think Kitty opens up some serious problems.

The major problem, of course, is that while Kitty doesn't fit chronologically into Fisher's lineage, she certainly is the completion of this trend. Which is to say that we intuitively understand her as operating according to the same logic of something like Star Wars, even though if one were to simply describe her it might seem more obvious to think of her as a logo.

The final point I want to make in this section is that I draw these analogies, particularly between Kitty and surplus-value, with an eye toward the negative spaces they create. This is, I think, the work of the real, no matter which register you are speaking about it in; it is those spaces, like the ones created by the analogy between Kitty and surplus-value, that resist all productive relations, and simply litter the ground like so much junk.


“In 1974 large numbers of teenagers especially women began to write using a new style of childish characters. […] Cute style began as an underground literary trend amongst young people who developed the habit of writing stylised childish letters to each other and to themselves”

Hello Kitty works in a very straightforward way: she provokes an affective reaction which inspires a consumer to purchase the product on display. The discursive component of this affect is what we call cute.

Cuteness has two primary cultural and economic touchstones, both of which are heavily imprecated into Pacific Rim discourse; on the one hand with American capitalism, and on the other with the Japanese “kawaii culture.” The latter of these is an aesthetic that has been operating in Japan since the 1970s, of which Hello Kitty has been both a forerunner and a mainstay. The culture takes on much more than just aesthetic dimensions; “The cute style extends beyond consumerism as seen in grown-ups with infantile behavior — acting silly, giggling, speaking with a squeaky voice, pouting and throwing temper tantrums.” This kind of acting out, rather than signifying a generation spoiled by its parents and just waiting for “the harsh reality of traditional values [to] hit home,” seems to me to point toward a sort of cultural hysteria, a particularly canny enacting of the roles to which they are subordinated by their objective situation. Not, as the cultural conservatives are fond of suggesting, a willed refusal of responsibility, but more along the lines of “if you refuse to treat us like adults, then we will be children until we die.” This refusal to acculturate oneself to a society which only has it in its interests to alienate and infantilize you is an oppositional stance, but one which can be subsumed under the culture of consumer capitalism which Japan is wholeheartedly importing by the time that kawaii culture becomes a real force, and which is the same time as Pacific Rim discourse is at its peak. But it didn't start as a function of that discourse; as the epigraph to this section points out, kawaii began as a trend in literature, or penmanship. The difference between contemporary cute culture and this “underground literary trend” is enormous and is traceable through a logic of self-determination that consumer capitalism as propagated through the Pacific Rim discourse posits, and it also highlights the power of the commodity form under the society of the spectacle: when as recently as the early 1970s (contemporaneous with the creation of Hello Kitty) it was conceivable to have an “underground literary trend” become the dominant aesthetic, and yet a similar occurrence is unthinkable today, the culprit would fairly clearly be the mystification of societal relations through objects/images.

The way that cuteness operates outside of Japan, however, is as a sort of diluted, partial affect, only able to be completed by the assuagement associated with retail therapy. This kind of relationship to affect can be seen in a broader context as well within American Pacific Rim and post-Pacific Rim culture, especially in formulations like Quentin Tarantino's films which use irony and supposed parody to flatten out all the possible affective reactions to his films into a generic “cool.” This is called a number of things, including “the death of affect” by JG Ballard and “the waning of affect” by Fredric Jameson, and it points to a kind of collapsing of affective reactions into affective potentials, with the ultimate goal (for the most part) of fueling consumption. Because kawaii culture is in some sense symptomatic of Pacific Rim discourse, it is implicated in this affect-flattening, consumption-prone society. The origins of the culture, however, point to the necessary evidence that this is not the only way that cuteness can be brought to bear in the world, however, and that in certain cases it can actually point in quite different directions than the one it currently does.

If the main inspiration for this project was the question of realism and popularity, then the main goal is an attempt at a fundamental reordering of cuteness. Because a critique of Hello Kitty is, at its core, a critique of the affect of cuteness, in which affect must not be understood as a psychological term, but as a material one, not a feeling but a sign inscribed on the consuming body. And this is important because cuteness, with all its baggage of capriciousness, is probably the single most powerful force behind which the troops of capitalism - especially a capitalism which does not just exempt, but actually models itself after, reproductive labour – martial. To be able to understand cuteness as a productively anti-capitalist force, and not just to understand it that way but to force it to become so, without it slipping backwards into nu-domesticities or other reactionary constructions of individualist value-producing units, is the (admittedly fucking utopian) goal of this project. And I've no idea how to do it, but I feel that it must be done.

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