FULL METAL APACHE by Takayuki Tatsumi ( Duke University Press 241 pp.)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
How does it feel to be another culture's default symbolic Other, its way of exoticizing the near-future? For Japanese scholar and consumer of popular culture Takayuki Tatsumi, it feels fine, not least because, as he demonstrates in this sometimes perverse but always fascinating study, the relationship between AngloAmerican popular culture and its Japanese more-or-less equivalent has for a long time been one of trade rather than appropriation.
Takayuki is an admirer of the quasi-canonical US avant-garde - Acker, Pynchon - and the well- thought-of popular - William Gibson, Bruce Sterling - as well as of rather less well-known, but equally fascinating, writers like the British fantasist Richard Calder. Calder's edgy obsession with nubile cyborgs is crucial to Takayuki's argument - here at the end of history all that is solid melts into air, including the distinction between humanity and its creations, between flesh and steel,.
So far, so impressive - because Takayuki is never less than an intelligent reader and a writer who conveys with nervy brilliance his enthusiasms and the ideas they spark in him. Where the problem begins is that his work inhabits that floating world of post-modern discourse where everything is permitted and nothing is wholly serious.
Takayuki cheerily appropriates ways of seeing from colonial and queer theory while ignoring that, for the main proponents of those ways of seeing, seeing is about changing the world as well as understanding it. You would never know, from Takayuki, that Acker or Gibson had a political bone in their bodies, or that Ballard writes from actual experience of real pain. Even his Apaches, ethnic minority gangs who built a subculture by stealing scrap metal, are seen here outside of class and race. For Takayuki, it seems, history's spurious end is an excuse to ingnore the real and the obvious.
PRETEND WE'RE DEAD: Capitalist monsters in popular culture by Annaless Newitz (Duke University Press 232 pp $74.95)
In the first place, Annales Newitz's title is misleading; anyone hoping that her book will provide a dissection of Superman's nemesis, Lex Luthor, or Homer Simpson's employer, Mr. Burns, will come away empty-handed. What she offers instead is a reading of various sorts ot monsters - the undead, the robot, the brain in a tank - as metaphors for the anxieties of late capitalism.
Newitz is on comparatively safe ground when she links zombies and other categories of the undead with anxieties about race and immigration; from Birth of a Nation through I walked with a zombie to Night of the Living Dead, both racists and anti-racist creators have consciously used zombies and ghosts as rhetorical counters. Much of what she has to say about robots and fears of automation is well-taken both as social commentary and as close reading of particular texts.
However, it is in close reading that she reveals one of her principal weaknesses - she is blithely unaware of the complexities of social and intellectual context, or even draws out a particular string of facts that suit her argument while ignoring those that do not. For example, her account of Isaac Asimov ignores distinctions between the work of a young Asimov, hanger-on of fellow-travelling Marxists, and an older smugger Asimov who had put aside Marx for Toynbee,
Newitz regards popular culture, regardless of merit, as evidence rather than art. She is critical of the Frankfurt school's dismissal of it as pure commodity, instead regarding it as smoke and dust pouring from the fault lines of a society in crisis. She is, at best, a fine enough critic that one can regret her preference for jejune social analysis; the political arises from close reading of texts so naturally that one does not need to force it out.
I do like writing very short reviews - there is an art to making them work as telling criticism and I think, after thirty years, I am beginning to crack it.