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There is no question that with the advent of the Internet, socialization has evolved remarkably rapidly, in both the global and local contexts. Instantaneous access to information and virtually limitless (as well as virtually mediated) human interaction have changed how the current generations in developed countries approach both others and themselves, despite varying overblown notions of moral panic around the “death of humanity” at the hands of technology. One of the most salient aspects responsible for this re-envisioning of human communication is the proliferation of anonymity, particularly by giving voice to “a class of people who [could not] be heard on the more prominent online channels.”1
In fact, anonymity as Internet culture has a relatively strong following, particularly within those groups that find more traditional humanist socialization unappealing or problematic.2 These groups, marginalized by themselves or by society, and seeking refuge in the anonymity of the Internet, protest the proliferation of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which require some sort of linkage to one’s “real” identity.3 Putting aside the validity and practicality of such a discussion, it remains true that on the Internet, there are a variety of websites predicated upon this concept of anonymity.
In Japan’s case, the most important and culturally relevant of these online venues is 2ちゃんねる (hereafter 2channel). Founded in 1999 by Hiroyuki Nishimura, the website, in general terms, has become a haven for otaku (a term used to describe those with obsessive interests, mainly in anime or manga, and often used as a pejorative) culture in Japan, and continues to be immensely popular in part because of its strict adherence to its commitment to anonymity.
One of the many results of user participation on 2channel is narrative creation – given that the website is a simple text-based BBS (bulletin board system), many of the users channel their energy into creating various types of narrative, driven by a sort of “meta-awareness” that assumes a poster has “intimate knowledge of the culture in which she is participating,” and that this allows that poster to “anticipate responses to their content.”4 2channel, however, has also bred the concept of 安価 (anka), a device used to anchor5 a user-created narrative to a particular post which will be posted in the future. The blurring of present and future combined with the anonymity inherent in 2channel forms a new variety of Internet culture. The result is a new genre of narrative that deconstructs the primacy of the narrator itself.
The Hegemony of the Metanarrative
In order to understand how anka contributes to the postmodern deconstruction of the metanarrative, it is important to understand metanarrative as a concept. Rooted in the humanist tradition that emerged in the European Enlightenment, and also referred to by some, like Hiroki Azuma, as “grand narrative,” metanarrative theory refers to the “singular and vast social standard”6 that solidifies various compartments of modern society into a cohesive whole.
Originally identified by Francois Lyotard, metanarrative and its various instantiations in society were considered a “precondition of the management of society”7 – in short, the metanarrative is that which binds various aspects of society together into a manageable whole. A metanarrative represents the history of a thing “as a linear story constructed by sweeping exclusions”.8 Taking concepts that span ranges of human history “the size of historical epochs”9 and distilling them into morsels easy enough for ready absorption necessitates effacing many of the local idiosyncrasies in favor of “universalistic pretensions.”10 One can identify many of these metanarratives at work in the years prior to the postmodern era. The concepts of humanity, reason, morality, the nation, capitalism, etc. are all examples of a metanarrative; all are “stories” that are told to justify a certain societal organization around a central concept.
One must also acknowledge the existence of a metanarrative of narrative itself – in other words, the preconceived notions of what takes place in the background of the process of narrative creation and consumption. Part of this concept is the system of various underlying narratives conforming to the idea of metanarrative, which allows each individual installment of narrative to be consumed separately.11 In other words, the metanarrative of narrative posits some sort of linear, temporally mediated relationship between all narratives, a relationship with “authority and mastery” over every individual narrative.12 In effect, this totality represents the “story of all stories,” one that seeks to distill all narratives “in the light of their place in the total narrative.”13
One of the bases of the metanarrative of narrative is the idea of the author and the audience, more specifically, the idea that there is a distinction between the two. The primacy of the “original,” rests on this notion. For the modern narrative to be of any value, the author, the content-creator, must necessarily be accorded a position of importance over the consumer. The act of creation and dissemination of the narrative automatically delineates one party as the creator, and all other parties as the audience, the consumer. As such, there is an inequality inherent in any given narrative relationship - the creator occupies a position of power vis-a-vis the audience. This relationship, ingrained as it is, legitimizes the narrative and its creator; it marks the author as giver and the audience as receiver.
Another important element of metanarrative is the concept of veracity. Not necessarily in terms of narrative content, for fictional narratives and non-fictional narratives occupy their own spaces in the worldview seen through the lens of metanarrative, but in terms of acknowledgement. Every narrative is recognized as belonging to easily demarcated categories – broadly fiction and non-fiction, but these categories can be further broken down into genres, etc. Even those narratives that originally pose as ambiguous resolve neatly into the broad categories of “true” or “false.” There is no room in the framework of the narrative metanarrative for ambiguity with regards to such a localized characteristic as a narrative’s veracity; such ambiguity must be effaced in order for the grand narrative of narrative to continue.
Anka and the deconstruction of metanarrative
Despite the hegemonic influence of the metanarrative, postmodernism and its various components have found avenues to challenge metanarrative as an ideology. Many of these critiques are unintentional, springing forth organically and germinating in such a way that calls the veracity of the metanarrative story into question. One such construct is anka, a content-creation device found on 2channel. Anka breaks the “rules” of metanarrative structure, deemphasizing the importance of narrative veracity and deconstructing the role of the author himself by engaging the community at large.
As a device, anka appears in a variety of places on 2channel; it is seemingly not limited to any one topic or genre of narrative creation, nor is it limited to a specific style of user. Practically, it is a simple concept. A user begins a スレ (thread) on 2channel and contributes the beginning of a narrative. The content of the thread could be anything ranging from a discussion on anime or manga typical of otaku to a request for relationship advice. However, given the velocity at which discourse evolves on 2channel, (“threads can expire within minutes or hours”14) posting a narrative in its entirety is unlikely to garner any particular reaction from the community at large. As such, a certain culture of narratives proceeding in installments dominates the boards. The narrative therefore progresses as the author repeatedly returns to the thread to update the readers and reply to posts that other readers have written.
It is in these follow-up responses (レス) that anka is brought to bear. The original poster will solicit some piece of advice from another 2channel user by referencing a post number15; crucially, this post number is a number that exceeds the current number of posts in the thread. In this way, anka requests a user in the future to respond with an answer to the query. An example of this can be seen in the 2channel thread attempting to create a new character to “troll” fans of the popular anime “Puella Magi Madoka Magica;” various features are requested by the original poster through anka, under the pretense that these features will actually be implemented. The anonymity of 2channel ensures that readers won’t know if the producers of the manga or a so-called “troll” created the thread.
Two aspects of anka bear mentioning. The first is the venue – 2channel – in which it takes place, and the anonymity that necessarily mediates the interaction. Because all users on 2channel are anonymous, there is no conceivable way that an author can solicit a specific user’s participation through anka. Any response received, therefore, is divorced from any individual characteristics and instead must be processed solely as text – in effect, each response effaces the self and becomes nothing more than a continuation of the narrative. This serves to eliminate the audience member as an individual and as an audience, as they are as much authors as the original poster; this lack of identifying characteristics actually legitimizes the contribution, rendering it as nothing more than a continuation of the narrative itself and allowing it to blend seamlessly with the narrative constituents that came before it.16
The second aspect is the fact that anka is temporally forward-looking, rather than referencing some user or event that happened in the past. It is this fact that introduces the randomness-element necessary for the audience to freely engage with the narrative. The fact that the original author engages some user in the future divests the author of control of the narrative completely; the author is not soliciting a contribution from a poster that he is familiar with, or a response in any particular style. Therefore, any continuation of the narrative is organically generated and completely unpredictable. This loss of authorial control of the narrative is made all the more salient because, as seen above, the original author is not at liberty to reject anka-mediated comments that do not dovetail with their personal vision of the narrative being created.
From these two aspects, one can grasp that the most visceral method through which anka challenges the metanarrative ideal is through the already much-discussed concept of authorship. However, rather than attempting to address the question of authorial intent, anka attacks the metanarrative on the level of authorship itself. In the traditional metanarrative context, there is a single author (at most a small group of authors) that disseminates a determined context to the audience. However, anka, in necessitating audience participation for the completion of the narrative, takes a step towards eliminating the gap between the author and the audience. In entering into the semi-contractual obligation to preserve the response generated by anka, the original author relinquishes a portion of control to a member of the audience. In a sense, the author invites his readership to contribute to the narrative while simultaneously abandoning any sort of pre-determined structure.
From the readers’ perspectives, anka offers them a chance to contribute rather than simply consume, creating an orientation towards the narrative that differs from that of a mere consumer. Therefore, the fact that anka is open to anybody and that (theoretically) any variety of responses may be forthcoming means that a joint orientation towards the narrative is created; the author becomes just as much a member of the audience to the unfolding of the narrative as the readers are. The original consumers are allowed to (at least partially) occupy the space of the content-creator, while the original creator is (again, partially) removed from the act of creation and placed in a space of consumption; in this way, anka formulates a new “creator-consumer” relationship vis-a-vis the narrative, into which both the original author and the original audience can be categorized.
Anka becomes particularly salient when the narrative being created is not a fictional narrative but as a request for advice or assistance.17 However, while these narratives are based around some real-world events are common and indeed quite popular, they are by no means the only venues in which anka is employed, as the above example about a popular anime illustrates. Additionally, when combined with the anonymous nature of 2channel, anka makes the question of whether or not the narrative being presented is true (i.e., can be received by the reader at face value) or an elaborate ruse created by the “author” irrelevant. The fact that the readers respond to the anka requests seriously despite doubts as to the veracity of the overall narrative immediately makes that question of veracity irrelevant. In approaching the request as if the story were true, the consumption of the narrative can proceed in a similar manner. In other words, by allowing a nebulous mass to contribute to narrative, the original author allows that narrative to become legitimized. The anonymity of 2channel lends credibility to everyone, as the usual social instinct for trustworthiness vanishes. The individual contributors’ beliefs regarding the truth-value of the narrative are similarly irrelevant, as are those of the general non-participating reader. In this way, a new style of narrative, in which the author is effaced and the validity of the narrative is irrelevant, is born.
The Interpellative Anka
Of particular interest is the method by which anka deconstructs the metanarrative concept. Exactly how does anka transform the participants of 2channel, by definition anonymous and multitudinous, into “content-consumers”? How does the audience become “subject-ified” enough that they can participate in the process of narrative creation? It is clear that anka removes the boundary between the audience and the original author. It does this by turning any given member from just a consumer, to an entity on equal level with the author.
Anka achieves this through the process of interpellation, outlined by philosopher Louis Althusser. In essence, to interpellate is to “hail” an individual in such a way that their identity is fundamentally altered.18 Anka takes the “consumer-individual” and, in the hailing request for a narrative contribution, alters that individual’s identity; they are in the moment of hailing and responding instantly transported to a position of “creator-consumer,” a “concrete subject.”19 It is only from this position of the interpellated subject that one can contribute to the narrative – contributions not solicited by an anka are not molded into the narrative framework and are often ignored entirely. In this way, anonymous group-generated narratives are divorced from anka-mediated narratives. In the former, there is no audience, merely a collection of authors unknown to each other; it is only in the latter where the “content-consumer” relationship emerges.
The audience member’s acknowledgement of the fact that the anka was “addressed to him,”20 legitimizes the notion that the member is able to contribute to the narrative. In this way, it is the interpellative nature of anka itself that deconstructs the boundaries between author and audience, and hence the hegemony of the metanarrative.
However, the concept of “addressee” is marred somewhat by the anonymous nature of 2channel. Interpellation, in the traditional sense conceived by Althusser, makes it “clear that you and I are subjects,” the interpellated subject is characterized by an “obviousness.”21 Anonymity, however, introduces an uncertainty as to who is being interpellated until the interpellated individual responds. The traditional linearity of interpellation is thus inverted by the forum in which anka is found; the interpellator does not identify beforehand whom to interpellate. The interpellated is put in the novel situation of becoming a subject (via anka) before the interpellator is made aware of their existence.
Anonymity poses an additional problem, in terms of the ephemeral nature of the anka-interpellated subject. According to Althusser, “concrete subjects only exist insofar as they are supported by a concrete individual,”22 and once interpellated as such, these individuals are “always-already…subjects.”23 The fact that all users on 2channel are anonymous and offer up no distinctive characteristics to distinguish them from other uses, however, makes a continued sustaining of the interpellated subject impossible. Therefore, the two above characteristics, support from a concrete individual and the always-already nature of interpellation, do not hold in the 2channel anka context.
Nevertheless, these issues do not invalidate anka’s deconstruction of the metanarrative; indeed, they help solidify to the unique nature of the anka-created narrative structure. The theoretical framework underpinning the interpellative method, the idea of an individual being hailed as a subject, still holds; it is merely that anka, given its novel environment and usage, requires a slight reworking of some of interpellation’s consequences.
The grand narrative of narratives can still be found in the world today – to claim otherwise would be disingenuous. It exists across many media and genres, and retains a solid grip on popular culture today. It may even be that the narrative’s metanarrative has proven to be more pervasive than other metanarratives - those of history, literature, or politics, for example. That being said, even within the scope of narrative-creation itself there are sites of resistance, such as 2channel and anka, that attempt to remove the barriers between the grand and the local.
Anka blends together the anonymity characteristic of 2channel and interpellation to bring about a new order of narrative, one that penetrates the barrier between creator and consumer to create an equal field populated by creator-consumers. It achieves this by interpellating the anonymous individual as a subject. While the anonymous contributor is only “subject-ified” for the time it takes for their contribution to be appropriated into the narrative construct as a whole, this act nevertheless brings the audience and the original author to the same level of importance while maintaining a joint orientation towards the narrative. In this way, anka not only deconstructs the primacy of the metanarrative, but also generates a new class of narrative to take its place.
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1. Auerbach, Anonymity as Culture: Treatise
2. 岡田, “ますます“リア充化”するインターネット PCからモバイルへ、猫から犬へ”
3. Various scholars have explored the nature of virtually-mediated identity and whether or not it is distinct from physically-mediated identity. For example, see Boellstorff’s ethnographic account of Second Life and Paul Manning’s subsequent review for a greater, more in-depth discussion of the distinction between the virtual and the real.
4. Auerbach, Anonymity as Culture: Treatise
5. This English word, in fact, is from where the Japanese word originates.
6. Azuma, Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, 27
7. Ibid., 28.
8. Currie, Postmodern Narrative Theory, 108
11. Azuma, Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, 30
12. Currie, Postmodern Narrative Theory, 109
14. Auerbach, Anonymity as Culture: Treatise
15. As all interaction on 2channel is anonymous, posts are identified by a sequential numbering system, rather than by user-created handles or avatars.
16. Auerbach, Anonymity as Culture: Treatise
17. Notable examples of such a style include 「完璧過ぎる女の弱点を暴きたい」and the now famous 「電車男」 narratives.
18. Althusser, From Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, 1269.
21. Ibid., 1268.
22. Ibid., 1269.
23. Ibid., 1270.
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岡田, 有花. “ますます“リア充化”するインターネット PCからモバイルへ、猫から犬へ.” 東洋経済オンライン. N.p.
Auerbach, David. "Anonymity as Culture: Treatise." Triple Canopy. Triple Canopy, n.d.
Alexander, Bryan. The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011.
Althusser, Louis. “From Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. By David H. Richter. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007. 452-59.
Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan's Database Animals. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2009.
Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008.
Currie, Mark. Postmodern Narrative Theory. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.
De, Fina Anna., and Alexandra Georgakopoulou. Analyzing Narrative: Discourse and Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.
Manning, Paul. "Can the Avatar Speak?" Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19.2 (2009): 310-25.