In Search of a 21st-Century Las Meninas

Table of Contents

In front of you lies Genron 8. “The Age of Games” is this issue’s feature.

The special features of this journal, in order, are: Criticism in Contemporary Japan; Mourning Spaces; Escape from Postwar Japanese Art; The Ghostly Body; and Russian Contemporary Thought. When compared with such topics, it may seem as though with this issue, we have suddenly gone soft. Whatever the case may be, the theme is games—in particular, video games. This topic is, to be sure, considered more approachable when compared with others, such as thought, art, and criticism. From the perspective of the editors, in fact, we think it would be wonderful if this becomes an occasion for an increase in readership.
However, a grave misunderstanding would occur if someone was to assume that the content of the debates and essays contained in this issue are easy to understand simply because the topic is video games. Quite the contrary: this issue may very well be the “hardest,” the issue that is the most challenging to comprehend thus far.
The reason is that we are not simply looking to trace the rise and fall of computer games as a social phenomenon. Nor do we intend to discuss the appeal of gameplay on the basis of individual experience. Instead, we are interested in exploring the way the emergence of new technology and/or media regulates lived experience and the cognition of those living in the 21st century.
Such an approach is based neither in historical research nor in textual analysis; rather, this approach connects the two elements. I call this approach “the theory of representational culture,” or hyosho bunka ron in Japanese.

Hyosho bunka ron literally means “the theory of representational culture”; however, the phrase is officially translated into English as “Representation and Culture” when rendered, for example, as the name of a major at the University of Tokyo. This is what I specialized in at university, and under this title, I wrote about French philosophy for my master’s degree. It is indeed “Representation and Culture” that is written on my diploma. The doctorate course which goes by the same name was, as an institution, absorbed into a newly formed major a few years later consequent to the chaotic and foolish university reforms of the 1990s. It is for this reason that my doctoral degree was awarded under a different name: “Transcultural Studies,” or choiki bunka kagaku; yet, upon graduating, I would rarely refer to my degree with this title because it has not come to be known outside of a very small circle of academics.
It was in 1987 at the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the University of Tokyo, Komaba, that the title “Representation and Culture” appeared. Thus, the study of representational culture as a discipline has been around for more than 30 years. Yet, no clear definition of this sort of study as an academic discipline has been established despite the existence of an academic association that is centered on it. The university’s website provides something reminiscent of a definition[★1], however, it is not a very useful one. In reality, the theory of representational culture in Japan refers to a sole academic faction that has an expressed interest in relatively new intellectual strands focusing on aesthetics and art, namely, French thought of the second half of the 20th century and the so-called postmodernism of Anglophone countries that such thought influenced. The term functions only as convenient jargon. As an academic discipline, unfortunately, it lacks much substance.
That said, of course, some new idealism was certainly in the air when the title of “Representation and Culture” was proposed. I entered graduate school in the mid-1990s and could still feel the remnants of such dynamism. I learned there that the study of representational culture was an acrobatic hinge meant to connect the dual poles of the humanities, e.g., historical research and textual analysis; evidence and interpretation; and subjectivity and objectivity.

Humans are animals who possess expression. Whether it is in politics or in the arts, humans continue to express things throughout their lives, and representation necessarily accompanies an individual’s expression. Language, sounds, images, and gestures—all means of expression—require technical auxiliary devices (media) to record and transmit them. While representation is a wholly personal media, for expression, it is simultaneously a historical product. As the place changes, so does the language; as the age changes, so does the technology. It follows that if we take representation as an object of analysis, we might be able to overcome those binaries that have long troubled the humanities, namely, the collective and individual; the historical and personal; politics and art; and the objective and subjective. In other words, the two approaches toward a given work might be compatible under the light of representation: one clarifies the work’s productive process with historical research, and the other focuses on its creative potential with a critical eye. Theories of representational culture, as far as I understand them, attempt to make such a bridging happen.
One work that embodies such an ideal, which is regarded as one model of the study of representational culture, is Michel Foucault’s 1966 The Order of Things. In the introduction to the piece, Foucault looks at Diego Velázquez’s famous Las Meninas, vividly depicting the episteme, the structure of ideas and signs, namely, representations that regulate the arts and sciences of 17th-century Europe.
Foucault’s work does not fit into the category of art history because the author does not make clear Velázquez’s “intent” or “reception” using historical evidence. Still, his analysis is also differentiated from art criticism because it does not discuss any creative potential beyond its historical context. What Foucault attempts to do is different than either approach: he tries to bring a new perspective to the entirety of a European mode of thought—more generally, representations—through an analysis of the manner in which the artist’s bizarre techniques of representation in Las Meninas (a painting well known for its peculiar composition) unconsciously and structurally correspond to a worldview shared by his contemporary scholars. Simply put, Foucault is not trying to analyze Velázquez’s consciousness but rather his unconscious. He thought that it was through such an analysis that the additional analysis of an artwork (one kind of representation) connects with that of the discourses (other kinds of representation) provided by contemporary philosophers, economists, and natural scientists. Only through the invention of such trans-representational analysis is Foucault able to obtain a framework by which art and politics can serve as two sides of a single, integrated history of representation, i.e., an episteme. Here, a critical interpretation can be linked to historical research without any contradiction or opposition.
I understood this to be the ideal of the study of representational culture 20 years ago, and I still feel the same way today.
Consequently, I am always in search of a second Las Meninas. I am in search of a singular point, where the act of analyzing a particular work becomes the act of analyzing the age surrounding it as well as the thought and worldview of its contemporaries.
I am not satisfied with simply reading a text or a work and developing an interpretation of it. I am not satisfied unless the interpretation touches upon the unconscious of the age through an analysis of representations. I do not find it convincing, either, if the said analysis of the unconscious is not rendered to or imparted upon existential problems. Any text or work should be analyzed as a symptom of the episteme of a given age. I often refer to myself as a critic or a philosopher; however, on this particular point, I am not purely either one. It is only within the school for the study of representational culture that I can be a philosopher or a critic.
I continuously return to this starting point. On one hand, I am a critic-cum-philosopher who engages with texts as a profession. On the other hand, I am much worldlier and act as a pundit reminiscent of a sociologist or journalist, all the while providing commentary on current affairs and politics of the present day. A division exists there. Sometimes, then, I try to connect the two personas, during which I always return to the problem of representation.
For example, in the final chapter of my 2001 Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (Doubutsuka suru Postmodern), I propose the concept of “hypervisuality” or “hyperflatness” to theorize the new condition of representation that supports the consumption database. In my 2011 General Will 2.0 (Ippan ishi 2.0), I propose the idea of inventing a new interface architecture that connects big data-based policymaking with political deliberation—a new media modeled on the Japanese video-sharing service Nico Nico Doga—as a condition of the democracy to come. Again, in my 2017 Genron 0: A Philosophy of the Tourist (Genron 0: Kankokyaku no tetsugaku), I focus on the relationship between information technology and society, arguing that “the computer interface which can show the visual images and the linguistic symbols with the same status” could be the basis of “the political plane of the postal multitude who can come and go between the order of the empire and the order of the nation-states.”[★2] None of these attempts have been successful. I have yet to provide a persuasive discussion about a new episteme that will make possible both the new politics to come (a General Will 2.0 that deconstructs the line between friend and foe or A Philosophy of the Tourist) and a new existence to come (the postal/familial multitude or an Otaku-like subject surrounded by imaginary–symbolic interfaces).
Therefore, I decided to address video games in this issue. Through an analysis of games, I want, once again, to attempt an analysis of a new episteme and to think about the condition that makes both our politics and our lives get absorbed into a game-like reality. In other words, within the 25-year history of video games, I intend to see not a history of industry, the development of technology, or the legends of creator-Gods but the transition of our times’ unconscious.
Such an approach is neither a thing of philosophy nor one of sociology. It is a job for the field of the theory of representational culture.
However, the methodology of this discipline has yet to be established; hence, it is a challenge to be understood. Therefore, I wrote earlier that this issue might, in fact, be the most difficult to understand. Still, for the same reason, the ambitious scope of this issue is perhaps the largest and most profound thus far.

The ambition for this issue was born in November of last year (2017) while talking with Yohei Kurose over dinner at a restaurant in Tokyo. I was moved by the passion with which he discussed philosophical aspects of the recent games he had played. I decided then and there that we would run a feature on games.
However, to discover the reason we were discussing games, you would need to go back one month, to the 8th of August, to a roundtable discussion held among Dai Sato, Sayawaka, and me.
Sato is a famous screenwriter with whom I had been acquainted some 10 years ago. Even though it had been long since I had seen him, our discussion was unbelievably stimulating—you can see a video recording of it online[★3] or read an excerpt in Genron 7. I hope you will take a look at one of these resources. At the discussion, I was particularly impressed by the promotional video for Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human that Sato introduced (the game coincidentally will be released just as this issue releases), which renewed my interest in game studies and criticism, from which I had long distanced myself. Even though Sato is not involved with this issue, had our reunion not occurred, this issue certainly would not have been born.
I mentioned that this issue is our most ambitious yet: in terms of volume, as well, it is the largest until now. At more than 200 pages, this issue includes a roundtable discussion tracing the past 25 years of video games; another roundtable discussion examining the same history but viewed from the outside of game studies; an interview with a promising creator and an unorthodox platformer; four essays of game criticism by four different writers; a translation of a world-renowned young philosopher’s piece of game criticism; a report on the circulation of domestically produced novel games overseas; and a large timeline and detailed explication of key concepts in the game industry that we have created to help readers think about video games (the explication of key concepts was so extensive thanks to the writer’s devotion that we have split it into two parts and will print the latter part in the next issue). These are truly diverse and stimulating texts: they blend ideas from the perspectives of history and the present; of researchers and creators; of the domestic and the foreign; and of the inside and outside of game studies. Many publications on the topic of games exist, and recently, great academic interest in the field has developed; even so, I am confident that this issue is of exceptional quality, for it is both diverse and committed to examining the topic from various angles. I would like our readers to use these texts as a starting point from which to think about the unconscious—the episteme—of the age.
In creating the table of contents, I was fortunate enough to receive the help of Kurose, Sayawaka, and Akito Inoue, all whom participated in the discussion in this issue. The variety of texts contained within the issue could not be assembled by one person alone. Formally, no one holds the position of supervisor for this issue. However, you would not be remiss to call each of these three individuals cosupervisors. I would like to express my gratitude at this point.

The theme of this issue is games. However, the goal of the discussion is not the games themselves. What we are striving for here is an analysis of the age through an analysis of games and even more so, a comprehensive understanding of society and the arts of our time, to which these analyses should lead us.
This issue is only the tip of the iceberg of our ambition. The episteme of the “age of games” has only just begun to reveal its veiled figure from within a cloud of dense fog. That is why I know Genron will once again, someday, return to the question of technology and culture within the realm of games and the surrounding culture. And I will once again challenge myself to establish an actual theory of representational culture that is applicable in our century’s world, namely, the possibility of analyzing the episteme of the postmodern age, the question of which I have left unsolved for some 20 years since the publication of my Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals.
Many topics focusing on video games have been excluded from this issue. Earlier, I mentioned that our texts are diverse; however, there are serious limits to such diversity. For example, even when looking only at the table of contents and the content of our discussions, you can see our lack of gender diversity. In addition, we have no essays by engineers, nor do we include the voices of Asian consumers. We have few discussions on virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), or social games. We should discuss games from a much more dizzying variety of perspectives. We have yet to find the Las Meninas of the 21st century. In this respect, this issue is also unfinished.
However, having edited this issue for the past six months, I was amazed to find discussing video games so enjoyable and engaging and discussing issues of representation and images still stimulating and wide-ranging.
The philosophy of today is being absorbed into and dominated by universities and politics. However, we believe that philosophy should exist outside these arenas. No greater joy exists for me than the idea of someone reading this issue and ever so slightly being able to experience the rapture of a philosophy that goes beyond the university or politics.

★1 See the “Association Overview” page at the official website of the Association for Studies of Culture and Representation. URL=https://www.repre.org/association/outline/
★2 Azuma, Hiroki. A Philosophy of the Tourist. Genron, 2017, p. 257.
★3 “Cyberpunk Revival: A Resurrected ‘Jacked-in’ Imagination and its Possibility.” URL=https://vimeo.com/ondemand/genron20170804