Thought For The Day

Thought For The Day
Cute Formalism

In his celebrated essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch (1939) formalist art critic Clement Greenberg laid out his core argument in favor of abstraction. At its heart was the notion of the autonomy of art, with its corollary that the intrinsic nature of each medium would determine that medium's direction of development. In the case of painting, the direction was toward flatness; in the case of sculpture, toward volumetric clarity. But content in art -- any content whatsoever, narrative, imitative, or political -- was out. 'Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself' -- 'itself' being its formal properties. For the moment and for the future, realism and imitation were no longer valid options: 'The alternative to Picasso is not Michelangelo, but kitsch.'

As Roland Barthes noted in 'Empire Of Signs', even if Japan were not peculiarly formalist in nature, our ignorance of the Japanese language would make us perceive it as a formalist place. Walking through the streets of Tokyo, the linguistically-challenged visitor is confronted with a delirious succession of hieroglyphics -- slashed brush marks, flags, lamps, banners. What for the Japanese are perfectly literal, narrative signs saying 'Eat here!' and 'Fried Squid!' are for us mysterious empty signifiers, exercises in pure form.

Japan is a more formalist society than any other I know, and it's not just the Inscrutable Signs Effect. Japanese people honour formalism in their love of unnecessarily complicated ways of serving tea, arranging flowers, lettering in ink, and stringing and trussing up beautiful women. They love and excel at making highly formal technical systems; they still build technology, from robots to cellphones to magnetic levitation trains, better and smaller than anyone else. They accord extraordinary respect to formal systems like etiquette. Their language has all sorts of different ways of saying things according to how polite you need to be, and yet, oddly enough, they have almost no sense of social class differences. Strangest of all, they have a religion with lots of rituals but no god! Western people would say 'Where's the beef? How can you sustain a belief system without providing some ultimate justifying content like an unseen, all-powerful creator?' The answer is that, in Japan, god is in the details, in the yakimono teacup and the way you turn its rim three times before sipping the powdery green matcha. Form itself is god.

God-in-the-details, of course, must be god made tiny. And tiny is, of course, cute. Cute as a child. Japan is a society which loves children, a society where it sometimes seems that all adults model themselves on an inner child, and certainly where commerce -- from fashion to banking -- uses childish characters, colours and scrawls and an all-pervading, all-conquering tone of cheerful cuteness to sell things.

Put these tones -- Formalism and Cuteness -- together and you get the somewhat unexpected style I call Cute Formalism. It's unexpected because in the west it would be an eccentric, if not forbidden, combination of signifiers. Formalism for us is intellectual, masculine, dry, adult, hard, macho, unsentimental, avant garde. Cute on the other hand is silly, feminine, wet, childish, soft, effete, sentimental and kitsch. What kind of chimera is this? How can such opposing values be rammed together?

'Kawai!!!' -- Japanese girls' invariable response to anything small, big-eyed, unthreatening, young.

What can you say about a country (Japan, of course) whose schoolgirls wear their sailor suits voluntarily on Sundays -- not because they're such gluttons for order and discipline that they can't bear to be separated from their uniforms even on holidays, but because of the perverse sexual power this conservative garb gives them?

One thing you could certainly say is that cuteness is pretty damned important here. Then you might wonder at the fact that formality, in the shape of a school uniform, can be cute. Continuing your extrapolation you might ponder the paradox that excitement can thrive precisely in the bosom of security, and rebellion in conformity.

And, if you see a school uniform as the perfect symbol of discipline, you might also point out that our wicked schoolgirl, lapping up all the attention her fresh, young body is getting in its strict, staid garb, is a beautiful symbol of a society with remarkably low anomie.

A term coined by French sociologist Emile Durkheim in the late 19th century. The literal meaning is 'without law'. Durkheim used it to explain how crime spreads when social control of individual behavior has become ineffective, and, later, to explain why individuals commit suicide. In both cases, anomie is a state of low morale arising from the absence of conventions, shared perceptions and goals. The term implies that conformity to norms is natural and normal; that resistance is pathological.

I don't know how anomie is usually measured in a society -- crime rates, levels of drug addiction, the prevalence of suicide? On drugs and crime, Japan would score extremely low on the anomie test. High suicide rates might suggest higher anomie, until we look a little closer. Suicide in Japan tends to be the result of pressure to succeed rather than the crumbling of communal beliefs. Japanese don't kill themselves because life is meaningless, but rather because it's too meaningful, in the form of career pressures, school bullying or exam stress. Or they kill themselves, like Mishima, because of some strict internalised code of honour, which suggests that social control of individual behaviour, far from being ineffective, is stronger in this country than the life force itself.

Subjectively, to me, Japan feels a lot less anomic than Britain and the US. There's a strong sense of national cohesion and purpose here, with good community structures in place to make people feel at home, connected, real. The first time I came to this country it gave me a strong feeling of what Britain must have been like in the 19th century, at the peak of its industrial success, still believing in its national myths, its superiority, its future, its unitary purpose. There's just some sort of bustle here. Everyone's in sync with everyone else, and with the requirements of the task at hand. Look at those dapper utilities men in white gloves up that power pylon, while their colleagues politely and seriously wave bicycles past! How could anyone feel alienated in a pale grey uniform with important epaulettes, carrying a glowing orange wand?

In a land with only one political party, only one hair colour, and pretty much only one racial group, communal respect and social harmony are easily achieved. You feel it in every conversation on the street, in a random snatch of warm laughter, you see it on TV or sense it in the noctural 'floating world' of hostess bars, karaoke taxis, pachinko parlours and little teriyaki stands.

I couldn't imagine Japanese lying around saying 'society feels unreal to me, nothing matters'. (They're probably saying that a lot in Russia these days.) If the Japanese are sometimes depressed and suicidal, it's because this society is all too real, too right in their eyes, with values so clear-cut that to flout them means excommunication and hemlock. Suicide here, far from anomie or rebellion, is a kind of apologetic agreement with society's laws. It's the other side of the coin of wearing your school uniform playfully on a Sunday. In a pluralistic society you're buffeted about by many small breezes. In a monolithic unitary society like Japan there is only one wind. It's either flapping your skirt above your super loose socks, filling your sails, speeding you to some happy, communal destination, or it's against you, dashing you on the rocks.

Literally, 'making strange'. A term coined in the early 20th century by Russian Formalist critic and writer Viktor Shklovsky: 'The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.' Ostranenie, the temporary estrangement of objects and relationships in order to make them freshly visible, overlaps with Brecht's Alienation Effect and Marcel Duchamp's concept of Delay.

Since coming to Japan, I've been reading Clement Greenberg and the Russian formalists, because it seems to me that Japan is a highly formalist country. I was very excited to discover Shklovsky's concept of ostranenie, because it seems to explain the sheer strangeness of a lot of Japanese culture. There's a free play of signs going on here, but it's happening in the commercial zone, not in academies and galleries. Commercial culture itself -- product design, comics, pop records -- is 'making things strange'. There's nothing but formalism -- an emphasis on design, on etiquette, on technique -- but it's cute formalism. It's light and playful. It swings like a schoolgirl's Sunday skirt, it rustles like the pages of a naughty manga. It's girlish formalism, faddish formalism. It's ostranenie in the context of low anomie.

Making things strange is more fun in a society where the general tone is consensual, reassuring and predictable than in one which is riven with social strife, decline, despair and anomie. In urban Detroit, for example, with its widespread crime, high unemployment rates and constant racial tension, what would be the point of ostranenie? Well, perhaps you'd do it as an expression of alienation. You'd probably make some heavy, scary, underground art. Or Realism would be your only motive. Like the pioneers of early techno, you'd say your alienated, estranged music was simply a realistic response to the sound of car factories. Making your art strange would just be your way to get art into kilter with the estrangement of daily reality itself.

One rainy day, up in Daikanyama, I saw Richie Plastikman Hawtin, pioneer of Detroit techno, in Bonjour Records, home of cutely playful CDs in pretty sleeves on boutique labels (Duophonic! Thrill Jockey! Trattoria! Karaoke Kalk! Childisc!) He looked intrigued but bored, like someone who's just arrived in heaven and doesn't know what to do any more.

Maybe our respective religions have fitted us for these differing attitudes to estrangement. Mosaic Christianity is posited on a social code -- the ten commandments. Any estrangement from any one of these commandments is 'sin'. (Islam is a more extreme statement of the same philosophy.) Deviance in these religions is a terrifying thing to contemplate -- 'the wages of sin is death'. Buddhism, on the other hand, actually advocates estrangement, in the form of detachment, as a positive solution to the craving and suffering of the world. Estrangement, in Buddhist cultures, is a healing force. Transcend your appetites and you will be enlightened. Play with them, test their limits. There's no god to punish you for your insolent ostranenie. There is, however, society, which steps into the god-shaped space and assumes terrifying power.

Ostranenie happens in the symbolic realm: it's a game you play with art, and art is, as Eno once said, where you can 'crash the plane and walk away'. It often happens that the most conservative societies produce the most playful and adventurous art. Think of Austria and Mozart, or Japan and Nobukazu Takemura. But these societies don't encourage experimentation in the social realm, thank you very much. So art is stripped of its political function, its real power to transform lifestyle and social mores. It's condemned to marginality, formalism, cuteness.

Actually, come to think of it, maybe there's a parallel with Islam. The ban on depiction of human forms in Islam -- presumably motivated by a fear of cults, icons, idols and rival religions -- brought about the monstrously ostranenic mutations of Javanese shadow puppets and the dizzying array of Moroccan tile patterns. The conservatism of mainstream Islamic society was met by a fabulously inventive formalist playfulness within the safely-defined parameters of shadow-play and 'decoration'. The forms of this art are 'cute' because, like children, its makers have no serious political or social work to do. They're not allowed near those areas, the preserve of the mullahs. So they're free to play, to riff, to -- if you will -- wank.

Formalism in the west often contains, at least by metaphorical implication, some rumbling threat or revolutionary promise related to the real world: think of the film Koyanasquaatsi, which uses formalist music (the repetitions of Glass) and film technique to show a 'life in turmoil'. Think of the African masks in Picasso, and how their apparent 'formalism' also suggested the end of the unquestioning self-confidence of European civilisation. Think of the relation between the formalist music of Messaien and Stockhausen and the potential nuclear horror of the Cold War. The heaviness or machismo of western formalism has tended to come from metaphorical threats and radical promises like these, and more generally, from the fact that ostranenie happens in the west, certainly in the 20th century, in the context of anomie. In Japan, ostranenie happens in a very different context, one of consumption, of playfulness, of security and consensus. Hence, perhaps, the unmistakeably cute face worn by Japanese formalism. It's ostranenie in the context of bonhomie.

Youth culture rebellion styles in the west are generally formal signposts towards more profound 'contents' -- subcultures in which people are experimenting with lifestyle. In Japan, rebel style is just signifiers. There are no real subcultures or alternative lifestyles attached. Skaters, punks, hippies in Japan seem to be fascinated with the etiquette of their chosen subcultures without extrapolating from them any real alternative social or moral forms -- communes, riots, new social models. They have no reason to take their sign play beyond art into the real world, because Japanese society is generally pretty consensual and pleasant. There are no deep reserves of bile to fuel dissent or get people searching for alternative ways of living. (Or perhaps it's because real rebels would be crushed.)

Masturbation made playfully strange

Low anomie in Japan (brought about by the combination of material well-being and lack of racial mixing or, to put it another way, adoption of western technology but not western social structure) may also be responsible for the more playful attitude to sex here.

Onanie in the context of anomie is a frightening thing, a symptom of general moral decline and scary relativism. In an anomic country like Britain, sex is hidden away, badly provided for in the society's collective myth systems. It's condemned, in short, to privacy and obscenity. In Japan, sex is everywhere -- in the mangas schoolkids flip through after school at Book Off or Mandarake, in hostess bars, in unashamedly sexy teen fashions, in every conversation and commercial. As in France, it's not only mentionable, it's written through the communal culture like rock candy or DNA. Being sexy, looking sexy and feeling sexy are collective comforts, not dirty private secrets. And that, too, I think we can claim as a benefit of the absence of anomie -- and not just a result of low anomie, but its part-cause: a society which makes you feel okay about sex is a society you want to be a part of. There's nothing like sex to keep the citizen sweet.

You might object that in Japanese porn the sex parts are pixellated out with a mosaic pattern. But you may also notice that this doesn't stop the sex from being more playfully perverse than anything you'll see in the west. And this is consistent with the general picture I'm painting. Where content, in the form of genitals and actual explicit acts, is blocked, form is free to run rampant. Onanie turns to ostranenie to keep the game fresh.

Trendy fashion emporium Laforet currently has a witty poster campaign of a uniformed Laforet employee with a pixel-mosaic face, as if to say that in Japan individuality itself is taboo. It's a wonderful symbol of how the dazzling individuality of Harajuku street style might actually not be an expression of personality at all, but a great display of its willing, happy extinction. I'm trendy because I want to conform. My outrageous formalism comes at a price, which is the suppression of my 'content' -- my personality, soul, face.

As with art, the low-risk, low-anomie atmosphere in Japan encourages experiments with friendly or cute estrangement in the sexual realm. Call the result, if you like, ostranenie-onanie, or 'estranged wanking'. The Japanese call their strange wankers hentai, and there's a whole stream of culture -- not to mention a multi-billion yen industry -- dedicated to them. It's called Etchi (which comes from H, the abbreviation of Hentai, which means literally 'strange person'). Some Hentais are famous, like photographer Noboyushi Araki, a man universally loved for sharing, by means of photography, his bondage fantasies.

A common western response to these images, or to the schoolgirl bondage prostitution that goes on in Japan, is 'How come the girls aren't murdered? They're so powerless, trussed up like that!' The answer is that sexual murder only happens in conditions of high anomie. In the west, the ostranenie of bondage (and bondage, after all, is a way of making sex strange so that we can see it afresh) is happening in reality, in the realm of content. You're really tied up, and I might really hurt you. That's because we're a 'content culture' in the west, and even in art we love realism. But bondage in Japan is happening in art, in the realm of form. (Or perhaps the whole society is in the realm of form?) Bondage is costume play ('cosplay'), theatre, and any blood is theatrical blood. To the Japanese, that overt fictionality doesn't make it any less exciting.

Fred West and Ted Bundy, Hannibal Lecter and Patrick Bateman are all highly anomic characters. Brett Easton Ellis' joke in 'American Psycho' was that 80s American consumer culture was itself so alienated and anomic as to be murderous -- Bateman's murders were just a symptom of the collapse of all social values, even artistic ones (the new Genesis and Huey Lewis albums getting feted in rock reviews by aesthetically bankrupt critics being one particularily chilling example of anomie). Murder, the consequence of high anomie, becomes the key to the whole society. You could reverse that joke and say that cosplay, the consequence of low anomie, is the key to Japanese society. Japan is pure form. Like Genet's play 'The Balcony', the whole society is art, a game with uniforms. Perhaps we could even call it Cute Fascism. It's harmless: just as the domination-submission game of bowing is undercut by the oddly egalitarian fact that everyone bows to everyone else, so the tied woman is really in control of her apparent captor, and the prevalence of uniform is complicated by the fact that Japan has no military and that people (pop groups like Maywa Denki, schoolgirls on Sunday) wear it even when they don't have to. Japan is a looking glass world. Enjoy, but don't trust, appearances.

When I visited him in the studio to hear his ultra-formalist work in progess, Cornelius gave me a copy of a singles collection by New York band Dymaxion released on his own Trattoria label, boasting the splendidly formalist title Dymaxionx4+3=39.21. I've been listening to this fascinating album a lot, getting the same pleasure from it that I do from the work of German neo-formalist groups like Kreidler and To Rococo Rot.

Dymaxion make very physical music. It sounds as if a rather idiotic, rough and ready garage band did a jam session one day on drums, guitar and bass, then a formalist with a sampler spent several years chopping up and rearranging the odd, ungainly constituent riffs, adding whirrs, buzzes and electronics. But mostly just restructuring it in absurd, pointless, hilarious ways a real band would never think of.

Track 9 on the Dymaxion album is called 'Verfremdungseffekt', the name Brecht gave his alienation effect. By putting together in deliberately awkward ways disembodied 'pah pah' vocals, electronic tingles, twangy guitars and distorted bass riffs, Dymaxion make pop music tropes sound downright weird, denatured. They could just as easily have called the track 'Delay' -- Duchamp's term for denaturing his material and (temporarily) alienating his audience -- or 'Ostranenie'.

I've already spoken enough on this website about Shibuya-kei and how its weirdly eclectic style-hopping represented a particularily Japanese attempt to 'denature' the pop music of the west, to superflatten and secularise it, to accomodate it into a new framework which was Japanese precisely in its deliberate misunderstanding and estrangement (ostranenie) of western tics, tropes, and memes.

But it wasn't just the Japanese who were doing this in the 1990s. Sampler formalism seems to have thrived wherever pop music got sophisticated, and to get signed wherever pop labels came into the hands of leftfield Avant Pop practitioners with enough reasons to suspect mainstream pop idioms, but also enough money to indulge their unpopular tastes by signing poor-selling formalist bands to their own labels. Hence many of the records put out on Trattoria, Cornelius's label in Tokyo, Duophonic, Stereolab's label in London, and Thrill Jockey, the label of the Tortoise posse in Chicago, as well as the many labels run by successful formalists in Paris, Cologne and Berlin. For artists with their own labels, people who already live in the realm of form and don't care where the beef is, Cute Formalism is the preferred international style. To the record-buying public, though, it remains misunderstood and unpopular. Your average rock fan puts on a Dymaxion record and hears, not ostranenie, but anomie. It sounds like pointless 'sampler wank': anomie in the context of onanie.

Japanese 'boutique' record label run by experimentalist Nobukazu Takemura, home of sampler-savvy girl-artists like Aki Tsuyuko and Hirono Nishiyama, and exemplary for its Cute Formalism, ostranenie, onanie and bonhomie.

We're used to formalism being macho either in its austerity (the high Avant Garde tradition) or in its impenetrability (beat science, propellorhead techno). Greenberg made a lot of the Abstract Expressionists' having 'decided to be major', which meant that they were prepared to go into the ring with the School of Paris and spar for supremacy -- not just for their own pride as artists, but for America.

Cute formalism, on the contrary, has 'decided to be minor'. It seems to side with child art, amateur art. Whatever gender its makers are, they seem more interested in crafts more tradionally thought of as feminine: the modest yet opaque formalism of things like cosmetics and cooking. They content themselves with making doodles in the margins of mainstream culture, seeming to relish the lack of attention. Instead of Time magazine covers, these Cute Formalists seek a proud parent prepared to clip their abstract scrawls to the fridge door.

Removing Julian Stallabrass' intended slight, we could almost call the new cute formalism High Art Lite. It's a micro-formalism concerned with tiny sounds and minimal statements. It's made by 'girls', has a childish and cute feel, and cuts up reassuring commercial material rather than scary great slabs of concrete sound a la DJ Spooky. The formalist pop that used to come out of dance, DJ and remix culture or the metal-banging avant garde tended to feature heavy drum loops and ear drum buzz, but now drums have turned into friendly, funny glitches, clicks and crackles. Other Music describes the new album 'Open Close Open' by To Rococo Rot man Robert Lippok as 'examining frequencies and textures under a microscope'. Bjork says she kept the sounds of her forthcoming album 'Vespertine' (concocted by Matmos from ice cubes being popped out of freezer trays and other domestic sources) deliberately small 'so that they can be downloaded easily from the internet'. Artists like Fumble and Hausmeister, on Cologne's Karaoke Kalk label, continue a quirky, childish tradition in German electronics which goes back to Der Plan and Palais Schaumberg. The current exponents of this style, rather than any sort of drum-heavy remix or club music, are making a kind of private electronic German micro-dub reggae infused with the spiritual values of Paul Klee.

If I had to nominate a 'founding document' for German Cute Formalism, it would be Holger Hiller and Thomas Fehlmann's little-known but excellent cassette-only release on Atatak, their 1982 reading of Paul Hindemith's operetta for children, 'Wir Bauen Ein Stadt'. I can't guarantee you'll ever track down the original, but there's an interesting reconstruction online here.


It's a Tuesday evening in Ura-Harajuku. I'm meeting Hirono Nishiyama at the Cafe Bio.

I was introduced to Hirono in Paris in 1996, at the house of a Vietnamese anthropologist in the Butte de Cailles section of the 13th arrondissement. I was having a clandestine affair with a friend of hers, the anthropologist's lodger. Hirono, then unsigned, was just a Japanese girl on holiday in Paris. She'd brought a DAT player and a little Roland MR 5 on which she made odd compositions out of drum and acoustic bass samples. The afternoon I met her, Hirono played some Satie on an old upright piano. Then we jammed, mixing patterns from her MR 5 with primitive flutes and finger pianos from the Vietnamese highlands, sitting cross-legged on the floor like lyceeans extending a fun music lesson into breaktime.

Five years later, Hirono is releasing albums on Childisc, Nobukazu Takemura's label. I'm spending a fortune on Childisc's cutely formalist releases -- ostranenie-friendly records by Nobuyasu Sakonda (east european-flavoured piano and accordion music meets synthetic speech), Aki Tsuyuko (Messaien for kids) and Asao Kikuchi (toytown Legoscapes mixed with test tones and pink noise).

As Momus, I'm not a cute formalist, more of a cad vaudevillian. When I produce formal surprises in my audience, they tend to be of the genrefuck gestalt shock type, not games with the electro-acoustic properties of the sound itself. Which, of course, limits my audience to people who have mastered the relevant language and cultural stereotypes well enough to get the jokes.

But I'm beginning to feel that Cute Formalism might be something I should try. Maybe ostranenie (low in anomie, high in empathy) is destiny. Onanie, amongst friends, can be bonhomie.

This essay was brainstormed with help from posters to the I Love Music bulletin board.

There's a follow-up thread going on here.

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