index magazine
grayindexed gray

Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.

Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.

Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Akira Asada, 2001


Asada’s first book Kozo to chikaraStructure and Power — appeared in 1983 when he was twenty-six years old. Without any advance publicity, it sold close to eighty thousand copies in a matter of weeks. Asada became a bona fide, if unwilling, cultural celeb. His popularity was referred to as the “AA Gensho” — the AA Phenomenon.
      Now forty-four, Asada continues to write about a range of cultural issues, from Japanese consumerism to the adulation of pop idols. He is always eloquent and full of passion, whether in his laser-like writings or when he speaks. During a recent rare television appearance, he talked about the modernist composer Iannis Xenakis. Asada’s statements came fast, densely-packed, and mantra-like, an outstanding performance.
     Writer Krystian Woznicki spoke to the Japanese philosopher about his early fame, his diverse projects, and his complex relationship to his home country.


KRYSTIAN: Why do you think there was such a voracious consumption of postmodern critical writing during the ‘80s in Japan?
AKIRA: From 1945 until the early ‘70s, Japanese culture tried to be very modernist. But in the ‘80s, partly because of economic growth, and partly because of the importation of postmodern theory, people stopped worrying about modernism. Instead they began to search for their roots in the pre-modern period. They synthesized that with postmodern theory. There was a group of people who looked for an historical precedent in the Edo period, a time when everything was communicated through parody and pastiche.

KRYSTIAN: Who were the people promoting this idea?
AKIRA: Alexandre Kojeve, who wrote about the “end of history,” mentioned the Edo period. He said that history in Japan ended in 1600 and that from then on, Japanese society was in a post-historical mode in which all one could do was repeat what had already been done. So the Edo period became a paradigm of contemporary consumer society, where everything gets transformed in a process of quotation and recycling. 

KRYSTIAN: A lot of people cared about this?
AKIRA: In the ‘80s, one could find the most acute symptoms of Japanese consumer society’s avant-garde nature. The managers of department stores read Baudrillard, and they understood his ideas. They didn't believe in the inherent value of merchandise, and they consciously manipulated the consumers' desire by making use of parody in advertising. 

KRYSTIAN: Was that the setting in which your book became so popular?
AKIRA: Actually, Japan had been a paradise for translations of European writers for a long time. In the ‘60s and ‘70s we already had some translations of Benjamin, Adorno, Deleuze, Derrida, etc. But they were read and discussed only in academic circles. Then in '83 I wrote my first book, which was a summary of French postmodernism. To everyone's astonishment, it became a best seller and made me a sort of cultural hero. I was chased by the media. My case was a symptom of how theory can get consumed and become fashion. I was trying to analyze the very mechanism by which such a thing could happen, but in a postmodern consumer society, the theorization itself was consumed!

KRYSTIAN: Media and culture studies have been very fashionable in the U.S. as well.
AKIRA: But the American situation is different because the focal point there has been multiculturalism. In college literature departments you can't simply concentrate on the western canon anymore. You have to read African literature, Asian literature, etc. You also can't simply concentrate on the heterosexual male writers. You have to read some gay writers, some lesbian writers. You have to read African literature, Asian literature, etc. You also can't simply concentrate on the heterosexual male writers. You have to read some gay writers, some lesbian writers. I don't want to criticize all these - it's wonderful to rediscover the creations of minorities and marginal people. The problem is that the motivation can be more politically oriented than spontaneous.

KRYSTIAN: So how do you handle this problem?
Asada: When it comes to subaltern or post-colonial studies, or gender or queer studies, I don't think that they should be autonomous disciplines. As autonomous disciplines I think that they have very little to say. For example, in Japanese literature you cannot ignore the Korean minorities writing in Japanese. When you exclude the Korean writers, postwar Japanese literature looks very poor. It’s even more so with women writers. Japanese literature has a long tradition of women writers. I generally support minority movements, but I think it’s better to reinscribe these things within the established fields of literature or philosophy instead of establishing small, isolated new disciplines.

KRYSTIAN: Critical Space magazine, which you founded together with the literary critic Karatani Kojim in 19??, includes a wide range of international scholars on its advisory board — people like Masao Miyoshi, E.W. Said, and Frederick Jameson.
AKIRA: We feature both Western and Asian writers. We try to establish a place for dialogue with the past. Postmodern theory became so trendy during the ‘80s that we forgot its starting point. Since the ‘20s, Japan has had a fairly strong Marxist tradition. It is against that background that a critic like Kobayashi Hideo, who is somewhat comparable to Walter Benjamin, emerged. There was also Maruyama Masao, who was like a Japanese counterpart to Max Weber. In the ‘60s, every cultural theory student read Kobayashi and Maruyama. But now the younger generation seems to have forgotten the starting point. I feel that we have to continue the tradition of modernist critique. That's why we founded Critical Space.

KRYSTIAN: You were also one of the founders of InterCommunication Magazine. It’s funded by NTT, the biggest telephone company in Japan. That seems like a conflict of interest for a magazine of cultural criticism. Does NTT ever affect your editorial agenda?
AKIRA: First of all, it was very hard to persuade NTT to provide resources for our activities. We’ve succeeded in getting what we need from them, probably, because NTT is a huge bureaucracy without a unified agenda. You hear talk about corporate Japan, but it’s mythology. Japanese business is really just a series of ineffective bureaucracies. Everyone has something to say, but nobody is ready to take any responsibility. The same goes for NTT. We’re taking advantage of the situation.

KRYSTIAN: InterCommunication deals with the internet and new media, but it brings in the voices of people from all sorts of disciplines.
AKIRA: When speaking about the internet, there’s a wide range of issues. In order to simultaneously understand all of it, we need people from different areas. The focal point of the magazine is what has been called “digital art.” But we don’t want to be techno-aestheticians. There are social problems, economic problems, and military problems that come into being as a result of this new technology. We are determined to discuss all of these interconnections, as well as artistic problems.

KRYSTIAN: How do you see these two magazines relating to each other?
AKIRA: From my point of view, Critical Space and InterCommunication are part of the same overall strategy. With Critical Space, we’re continuing a tradition of criticism that seems very old fashioned, but it’s deliberately so, because we’re losing all the “good” old ideas in the middle of this crazy information society. On the other hand, with InterCommunication, we’re trying to stimulate a dialogue around techno-science and culture.

KRYSTIAN: Are there similarities between your critical, editorial, and curatorial work?
AKIRA: Neither curating nor criticism is very different from editorial work. You reject some people and you admit others.

KRYSTIAN: Do you have any guidelines?
AKIRA: As a critic, you always have to be open to criticism yourself. If that condition is fulfilled, you can determine what you think is right, whatever it is. However, in what’s called postmodern relativism, the critic avoids decisions: “This is interesting in some way, that is interesting in some other way.” But they won’t say, “I choose this or I choose that.” I still think that you have to say, “I commit myself to this choice. And, of course, I am ready to take any criticism.” The true critic has to do that. Of course, seen from the outside, some of my choices seem arbitrary. But I am ready to defend them as well as possible.

KRYSTIAN: Which contemporary philosophers are you close to?
AKIRA: I was a very good friend of Felix Guattari. He died fairly early, at sixty-something. I think his role in the field was very important. Nowadays Gilles Deleuze is mythologized as the ultimate philosopher. Maybe he was, but only as a French continuation of Heidegger. It was Guattari who linked Deleuze with the arts, psychiatry, etc. He was a connector. Of course, Deleuze knew this, and he deliberately chose Guattari as a collaborator.

KRYSTIAN: What do you think of virtual reality?
AKIRA: If you want to think about “virtual sex” or “virtual death,” problems arise. Death is real. You can imagine a dead person but you cannot imagine death itself — it escapes from being captured with words or images. It’s the Real in the Lacanian sense — that which escapes being mediated by any language.

KRYSTIAN: There’s a sort of low-end use of technology that’s very important in Japan, like the “girls with cameras” phenomenon of photographers like Hiromix and Yurie Nagashima.
AKIRA: It’s true. We do have a general tendency towards infantilization. [laughs] There’s a divide that goes on in the consumption of technology in Japan. On the one hand there are real techies, and on the other hand there are people who play with gadgets, of which the girls’ photography phenomenon is a good example. These polar opposites exist simultaneously. My wish is to overcome that polarization. There is also a divide between young people who are interested in new machines and old people who read philosophical books. Somehow we have to close the gap and open up a space for dialogue.

KRYSTIAN: There seems to be a celebration of amateurism going on, which is promoted by the new consumer media industries. It’s that sense of: “Anyone can do this.”
AKIRA: Of course Andy Warhol said, “Everyone can be a star for 15 minutes.” That can also be read as, “Everyone can be an artist.” But Andy Warhol was Andy Warhol, no one could be him. Art pretends that it belongs to the masses, and the masses pretend to be artists.

KRYSTIAN: Japan was involved in two world wars in the twentieth century, and the trauma of that still seems to hover in people’s minds.
AKIRA: In the ‘50s Japan was very obsessed with the memory of war, and there was a tendency to cultivate subjectivity around it. There were many survivors of the old regime in Japan, and we had a war criminal as a Prime Minister. We had fairly conservative regimes in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and a lot of people tried to create resistance to that. In the ‘70s, and especially in the ‘80s, we pretended to forget what happened in the past while we indulged in the eternal present of a consumer society. Hence we face a dual task now: we have to continue the critique of the pre-modern regime, while we also have to continue a critique of modernity as it has been imported from the West. It’s a very heavy responsibility.

KRYSTIAN: Your perspective on your home country is somewhat cynical. I wonder whether abstaining from publishing a new book for so many years is a strategic reaction to the role you have in Japanese society?
AKIRA: No, it’s because I’m a very lazy person — I don't want to work. But, of course, I have also been trying to distance myself from consumer society and mass media. I don’t like to appear on television or write for major newspapers. This isn’t a calculated strategy — it was my own instinctive reaction. Somehow, it’s been working.

Portions of this interview originally appeared in Spex Magazine.

Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
Site Design: Teddy Blanks. All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller