In Response to Digibro’s “Cabal”
Digibro recently released a video called “On the Need for a Cabal of Anime Gurus”. I think we can (and should) push the word “cabal” aside for now, since the connotations of that word are (or should be) problematic for critics and I don’t think it’s really what Digibro is envisioning. If you haven’t watched the video and are interested in reading this post or discussing this topic, you should go watch it. Anyway, instead of a cabal, I read this video as Digi wanting a mass elevation of the baseline of anime-related knowledge and context. The video implies that this knowledge can be promoted by—and this context should be in relation to—a group of anime YouTubers and bloggers. To use his own words, these creators are all “having different conversations that should be together.”
An immediate thought would be to hyperlink the content of these creators together, either figuratively or literally. Digi himself follows this line of thinking, saying the audience might (as an example) go from one of his videos, to an interview he references, to a video about the person being interviewed, and so on like a kid following a trail of candy. While this is a way to build knowledge and context, I don’t think it’s feasible on a large scale. You may argue that the audience is inherently driven toward knowledge. Anime fans are a niche community, and fans who want critical or historical content are a niche within that niche. While, yes, this super-niche is super-driven, it isn’t driven enough to explore that far past the content it originally wanted to view.
We as a community are already in a massively hyperlinked state. My own work is often referenced and linked on blogs and Reddit and other websites, but the traffic that results is staggeringly low compared to the traffic of the original content. We’ve all fallen down the rabbit hole on YouTube and wasted four hours of our night clicking from one video to the next, but we aren’t likely to do that with denser critical content. The existence of hypertext and hyperlinked content absolutely improves the knowledge base and context of an audience, but it cannot extend as far as Digi’s vision. If it could have, it would have. Yet, in even the nichey-est of niche communities, the most passionate of passionate communities, total context does not exist. Side note: go watch Serial Experiments Lain, as it plays with these theories in ways that will leave you thinking for the next couple of weeks.
But back to the point…I don’t think Digi’s vision is necessarily unattainable (at least, not what I interpret to be his vision). Later in the video, Digi leans more towards the idea of a centralized hub where creators post and discuss their work. This would indeed lighten the load of the audience and allow for mass elevation of knowledge and context. Of course, this idea poses its own issues. If the goal is accurate and informative content, then the hub would have to have policed or exclusive submissions, which would likely reduce audience engagement. This can also lead to the kind of hegemony or privatized ideology that one would actually associate with a cabal. Even if comments from unapproved submitters are allowed, these comments lose validity based on the fact that the commenter isn’t part of the “elite” allowed to submit content. Dissenting arguments vanish, and total context loses all purpose by becoming—in practice—only one idea.
Still, a hub is a starting point. It puts ideas on the table. The first of these ideas is that there exist “anime gurus” in the form of content creators or curators. This is incredibly accurate, but in a very inclusive way. The big curators at Sakugabooru provide and are privy to a ton of knowledge and context on animation and animators. The duo (I believe?) over at Pause and Select provide so much context for anime in relation to a variety of academic topics. Anyone who translates anything—Ultimatemegax comes immediately to mind—are knowledge and context gurus in their own right. The number of gurus—of people with the background and ability to transfer knowledge—is massive. Digi definitely strikes at this idea, too, saying that “there’s so much knowledge going around.”
So, what do we do, assuming we want to put all these gurus in context or conversation with one another? As Digi laments, the age of closed-crowd magazines is over. There are too many gurus to shove in one readable zine or post, so they’d all inevitably splinter into exclusive groups all creating their own group content and we’d essentially be back to square one. Is it hopeless, then? Well, Digi’s yearnings are nothing new. New Wave filmmakers and critics started their own studios and magazines to unify and collect their ideas. Hemingway and pals holed up in Parisian bars. The Transcendentalist movement, the Harlem Renaissance, the birth of hip-hop, etc. All of these groups and movements came together and elevated the knowledge base of their creators and followers, and they all began as closed communities.
But they all suffered the same eventual pitfalls. As the number of gurus and the amount of information increases, so too does the impossibility of total context or total conversation. Looking at hip-hop as an example, in NYC in the 70’s, most hip-hop fans knew who the big DJs and MCs were. They all knew what songs were being sampled. They all went to the same parties where hip-hop was being played. There was an in-crowd that had to be in the right place at the right time to enter the artistic conversation. You had to be hip. The case is very different today. Total context is unachievable because too many people are listening to hip-hop and too many people are creating hip-hop. Nowadays, certain artists contextualize only certain other artists, and fans follow suit. Not to get off-topic, but this is why there’s such a schism in hip-hop right now between up-and-coming artists with limited knowledge of the art’s roots and old heads who grew up among those roots.
I think the critical anime community—and the anime community at large—needs to ask itself some questions. How much should we expect to know in general? How much about animators should we expect to know if we’re fans of SakugaBlog? Do we need to know anything before watching The Canipa Effect? Some of Digi’s videos expect the audience to arrive with certain context. Most of my content doesn’t ask the audience to show up with that context. Is there a need to reconcile that? Should I raise my expectations, or should Digi lower his? The point I’m getting at is that the issue is large and complex.
Yet, as we ask ourselves these questions, we also have to ask ourselves if the answers matter. More accurately, is total context what Digi is imagining/what we should attempt to achieve on a broad scale? This question is an issue because Digi obviously didn’t create some grand vision across years of contemplation, he just made a vlog. He has conflicting opinions within that vlog because he’s searching for the same answers this essay is. Despite us not knowing exactly what the problem is, we have enough of a sense to theorize further. Since I talked about closed artistic/critical communities, I should probably talk about an open one. The most open one.
Literary criticism is arguably the oldest and most popular critical arena. And literary criticism is demanding. Damn demanding. Philosophy, economics, history, linguistics, psychology, and a hundred other intellectual/academic disciplines are constantly referenced in the arena, and have been referenced for centuries. The cumulative knowledge of mankind is used as example, attacked, built upon, torn apart, and so on. Not to mention the references (and sometimes flat-out insults) to literature and literary critics themselves. To fully understand certain essays, you’d have to have grown up in a library. Literary criticism is a contextual hell where nothing is black and white, yet it thrives. Why?
Partly because most people reading these terrifying essays are the ones who are writing the other terrifying essays, but partly because literary criticism is okay with you being slightly out of the loop. Literary criticism will sometimes pause to explain, to parse the knowledge or context it is referencing. The full understanding of the essay requires the reader to pursue those references in depth, but a understanding does not. Literary critics invite other writers and theorists into their essays momentarily to enter a dialogue with them. Oftentimes, it’s as if the critic is allowing someone else to write a part of their essay for them. Sort of: tell my audience your argument so I can either tear it apart or use it for my own benefit…in rough terms. And I think this is a great place for anime criticism to head toward.
Obviously, we’re not all freeloaders writing on paper in our attics like so many literary critics were at various points in history. We have the internet and videos and pictures and audio and so much else at our disposal. There’s no reason we have to wind up at the same place as literary criticism, but we can draw a lot of inspiration from how it creates context and raises the knowledge base of its readers. We as a community have a great power to unify ideas or communicate dissent, but we also have the benefit of not yet falling into the stagnation of tradition. We’re currently constructing our identity.
Honestly, I probably wrote way too much in response to what might have just been an off-handed idea in a vlog, but I care deeply about the future of the anime medium and those who criticize it. I want to see certain people or ideas in dialogue with each other. I want criticism to birth new ideas, which can’t happen in isolation. On a personal level, I want to see arguments I disagree with challenged. It irritates me beyond belief when I see certain claims openly accepted by an audience simply because there’s no one present to argue the opposite, and I know for a fact that I’m not the only one. Not that I think critics need to be at each other’s throats, but why is there so little dissenting opinion? The only time I’ve seen a formal counter-argument is when someone claims something inaccurate about the production details of anime.
Maybe that is what I’m getting at or how I envision Digi’s “cabal”. We simply need to speak up and enter discourse. Discourse can elevate knowledge. Discourse automatically provides context. Dissent and expand! can be our rallying cry. I don’t think the content we’re creating is so bland that we can’t argue against it or push its meaning further. We have the means, the motivation, and the media to do just that. So, if I could change the original question, why aren’t we?