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<nettime> Interview with Akira Asada
Krystian Woznicki on Thu, 19 Feb 1998 23:32:48 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Interview with Akira Asada

Akira Asada is since more than a decade the most prolific editor and
curator in Japan. At the  InterCommunication Center in Tokyo he works on
large scale urban design projects with people like   Arata Izosaki (where
art, architecture and new media merge). To support young artists who
explore gender and commuincation related concepts as based on new
technologies is of equal importance to him. 
His activities however by far transcend the realm of new media, and the
border of his home country. What could be the common denominator of his
Interdisciplinarity alone, does not seem to hold. It is perhaps by far
more rewarding to approach his work as an attempt to reject, and prevent a
monolithic  'Werkarchitektur'. His writings seem far less directed at the
formation of a canon, but rather "intuitionistic" interventions. 

He "became famous when young [25] in a relatively small country." His
first two books, including >>Structure and Power<<  (1983), became
national bestsellers. The first of their kind, as they were pure theory.
Or, as they were read those days: pop academism.  
Asada introduced the late Deleuze, among other French Post-Structuralists.
As problematic as these two books appear from a current viewpoint for his
career and writing, they involved him in still on-going debates with
Western thinkers including Derrida, Slavoi Zizek and the late Luigi Nono.
Besides extensive lecture tours through Europe  (mainly France) and USA he
finds time to teach Economics at the University of Kyoto. 
During several meetings in the last 18 month I inquired  about the
background for his current activities.

Krystian Woznicki: The introduction of post-structuralism in Japan during
the 80's was intrinsically coupled with the debate on the consumption of
knowledge/theory, for especially  French thinkers were exhaustively
featured in and embraced by mass media. Could you sketch the development?

Asada Akira:  Actually Japan is the paradise for translations. Already in
the 60's and 70's we had  some translations of Benjamin and Adorno,
Deleuze and Derrida, etc. But they were read and discussed in academic
circles. Then in '83 I wrote a book, a kind of summery of what is now
called postmodern, French theory.  To everyone's astonishment  the book
became a bestseller and made me a sort of cultural hero,  chased by crazy
media circles. My own case is a  symptom of how theory was  consumed and
became  a fashion.  In a sense I was trying to analyze the very mechanism
by which theory was consumed and became a fashion. But in the postmodern
consumer society the very theorization itself was again consumed up by
consumer society.   

KW:  Viewed from a current vantage point, was there a singularly "Japanese

AA: Well, at least in the 80's we could find the most acute symptoms  say
that Japanese consumer society is the most, well, in a way most
avantgarde. For example Baudrillard analyzed  the consumer society, but in
Japan even the managers of department stores read Baudrillard. Actually
they didn't have to because they knew it all too well.  They didn't
believe in the inherent value of merchandise, they are consciously
manipulating the consumers' desire by  making use of pardodic
advertisement. But of course  this was only an acute symptom of what was
happening everywhere in the world. 

KW:  What were the parameters for the voracious consumption of post modern
writings during the 80's as seen from an extended understanding of
consumption as an active act including projection, labor?

AA: It's a difficult question.  At least from 45 till early 70's the
Japanese culture and society tried to be real modernist. But partly
because of the success of economic growth, and partly because of the
importation of postmodern theory, they ceased worrying about modernism.
They tried to search for their roots in the premodern period, and to
synthesize it with the postmodern theory. And tentatively they found their
roots in the Edo period, when, in a closed country,    everything became
parody, pastiche,  etc. It was already  a paradigm of consumer society,
where everything was transformed in a process of quotation, and, well,
recycling.  Actually Kojeve, who told about the end of history,
mentioned the Edo period, saying that history in Japan had already ended
in 1600 and from then on Japanese society was already  in a posthistorical
status  where all you can do is repeat what had already been done.  Then
after Meiji Restoration (1868) we tried very hard to modernize ourselves.
But in the 70's and  80's we had the reemergence of pseudo Edo mentality.
And they tried to synthesize that premodern mentality and postmodern
theory. But now its over and we cannot continue the same game.  This is
the time for new openings.  

KW:  >>Critical Space<< which you founded together with the literary
critic Karatani Kojim   involves a wide range of international scholars in
the advisory board including Masao Miyoshi, E.W. Said, F.Jameson. In which
way does it relate to this context? 

AA:  We try to establish a place for dialogue; a dialogue with the past
and the dialogue with the outside; that is, we feature Western and Asian
writers. Because postmodern theory became so trendy during the 80's, we
forgot the starting point. Since the 20's, we had a fairly strong Marxist
tradition. And it is against this background that a critic  such as
Kobayashi Hideo ---somewhat comparable to Walter Benjamin--- could emerge.
When I was a student in the 50's and 60's there was a modernist canon.
Maruyama Masao, who  died recently  was a Japanese counterpart of, well,
Max Weber, providing a canonical theory of modernization and
democratization. And indeed, everyone read Kobayashi and Maruyama.  It is
against this background that postmodern theory was introduced. But now the
younger generation seems to forget the starting point: they don't read
Kobayashi nor Maruyama. Therefore we need a kind of  double strategy. We
have to continue some modernist tradition of critique. We have to continue
the dialogue with postmodern thinkers. Temporarily and spatially we have
to open up a space for these discussions. That' s why we founded
>>Critical Space<<.   

KW: How about the InterCommunication Magazine? There may be likely minded
publications but considering the expense and the operational basis it is
certainly an unparalleled and pioneering project. 

AA: We have been working on that since about seven years. It is about the
dialogue between technology and culture.  

KW:  Does  the fact that the financial basis for this magazine [as well as
for the entire ICC project] is provided by the biggest telephone company
[NTT]  in Japan affect the editorial agenda?     

AA: Well, of course it is very hard to persuade people at NTT, first to
make the ICC and then to provide resources for research activities or
publications. Until now we have somehow succeeded. But I am not really
sure. Now that they are having a center... As soon as you have hardware it
is very easily institutionalized and bureaucratized. Therefore  I  am not
sure if we can go on as we have been doing. But at least until now there
has been only little influence or pressure from the company. 

KW:  I wonder what it means to do research for a telephone company that
has naturally also its own plans to go into multi media and the Internet.

AA: In fact NTT is a huge bureaucracy  and they do not have a unified
agenda. There are many people and no unification, no unified strategy.
They are speaking about corporate Japan and it's a myth. It's a very
ineffective huge bureaucracy. Everyone has something to say and nobody is
ready to take responsibility.  The same thing accounts  for NTT. There are
a lot institutes; such as the institute for human interface, basic
research etc, but  no unified planning. We are basically taking advantage
of the situation. 
In late 80's so-called Messena activities became fashionable among
business people. In a sense the ICC project is regarded as a Messena
activity, independent of NTT's  business, as an activity to cleanse their
hands. In that way we have been somehow independent. At least from my
personal point of view >>Critical Space<< and >>InterCommunication<< are
both sides of the strategy:
With >>Critical Space<<we are somehow continuing a deliberately
conservative tradition of criticism.   It seems very old fashioned. But it
is deliberately so, because we are losing all these, well, good old
criterion [laughs] in the middle of crazy information society.  On the
other hand with >>InterCommunication<< we are trying to open up new
horizons and to stimulate a dialogue of what has been called culture and
techno science. For the time being I think that they are, if not
complementary to each other, then some vague sides of a unified project.

KW: The >>InterCommunication<<project  displays a wide  range of
disciplines with which the exhibition projects or the workshops attempt to
deal with. The field is even more widened there. How  does the ICC project
attempt to bring these disciplines  into dialogue?   
AA: When you are speaking about the Internet, and the electronic network
in general you have the possibility of artistic communication but at the
same time you have a problem with digital cash, or cryptography. There is
a wide range of issues, and in order to understand them simultaneously we
need a lot of people from different areas. Of course the focal point is
what has been called techno-art.   But we don't want to be techno
aestheticians, let's say. There are social problems, political problems,
economic problems and even military problems in relation to new electronic
technology. We deliberately talk about all these social, economical,
political and military aspects and at the same times about artistic
KW: Media/culture studies are very fashionable in the US, yet one misses a
convicing methodology being seized. How is the situation in Japan? 
AA: The American situation is somewhow  different because the focal point
there is what has been called multi culturalism. Let us make   a
distinction at this juncture. There was a  boom of interdisciplinary
studies  in the 60's and 70's; today,  especially in the States, there is
a boom of what is called multiculturalism. 
In the literally department you can't simply concentrate on the Western
canon. You have to read African literature, Asian literature, etc. You
can't simply concentrate on the male, hetero sexual tradition. You have to
read also some gay writers, lesbian writers. The problem there is that
it's more politically oriented than sort of spontaneous and inherent. I
don't want to criticize all this. It's wonderful to rediscover the
creation of minorities, marginal people, etc.   That I think is a part of,
well, if not political, at least ethical problems. But that is another
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 Korean minorities writing
in Japanese. When you exclude all the Korean writers then postwar Japanese
literature was, if not nothing, then at least very poor. Even more so with
women writers. Japanese literature has a  long  long tradition of women
writers. I do not think that we new terms such sub altern minorities. It's
already there and what is most important is to grasp these elements from
within. Instead of establishing new departments. You know I really don't
want to sound reactionary. I generally support all these minority
movements, but I think it is better to reinscribe these tendencies within
the conservative fields of literature, or philosophy instead of
establishing small isolated new disciplines.      

KW: Is nowadays your work as a critic/editor/mediator more important than
the work  at the academy as Economist/Associate Professor at the
University of Kyoto?

AA: Yes, I think it is more important than my professional teaching. And
actually we are trying very hard to solicit papers from the younger
generation. We found two or three interesting writers in their twenties.
It is equally very important to me to support young artists. 

KW:   I wonder whether   for instance your abstaining from publishing a
new book (your last publication now dates back more than13 years) is a
strategic reaction to the role you have gained in Japanese society ? 

AA: No, first of all I am a very lazy person. I don't want to work. That's
what it is. But of course  I have been trying to distance myself from
consumer society and mass media. I seldom appear on television or write
for major newspapers. Actually this is not a  well calculated strategy, it
is a rather spontaneous reaction. Well, somehow it worked.

This interview text appeared earlier this winter in Spex Magazine.

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