asiascape vistas

Techno-Culture, New Politics, and Philosophy in East Asia

Asiascape Vistas is a forum for discussion about the many and various dimensions of cyberculture found in or originating from East Asia. Its focus is on the interplay between these media and questions of politics & philosophy. Contributions are from the academic collective responsible for the core project, but other contributions will also be considered by that collective.
If you wish to contribute to Asiacape Vistas, please send an email using the form on the contact page.

One-day Manga exhibition & seminar

Please join us on Saturday 6 December in The Hague for a few hours of manga, art, virtual ninjas, drinks and snacks!

Admission is free and all are welcome.
For catering purposes we kindly ask that your register.

More information and registration is here:


Martin Roth is awarded historic PhD degree: 'Games encourage us to explore alternatives'

The Asiascape hosted Beyond Utopia is a Leiden University project funded by NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research) concerned with identifying the potentials of artistic media such as manga, anime, and video games for expression, criticism, and intervention in political thinking.

On August 27 Martin Roth, one of the project's three PhD candidates, was the first to get the degree for his research on the political potential of video games. An historic PhD degree it seems; it is Leiden's Faculty of Humanities first one ever in this field.

Below a translation of an article by Bart Braun in Leiden University newspaper Mare about Martin and his PhD thesis. The original article in Dutch is available on Mare Online

 (translation by
The academic interest for games has finally reached Leiden: last month the Faculty of Humanities bestowed its first PhD degree in this field.
 ‘Games encourage us to explore alternatives’.

In the 1950’s the University of Manchester assisted in the development of the worlds first commercially available computer: the Ferranti Mark 1. It consisted of a huge box containing over four thousand vacuum tubes, built under the supervision of the legendary computer scientist Alan Turing.
This computer outperformed the mechanical calculators of the time and you could also use it to play chess. When you entered your move with a punch card, the computer presented a countermove after 20 minutes. The human opponent then had to put this move on a wooden chessboard; the Mark 1 was not equipped with a monitor to display the course of the game. If you were smart enough to understand the punch card hassle, you were likely to beat it at chess because the machine could not think more than two moves ahead. But still, depending on the definition, this was the first computer game of all time.
The computer game has come a long way since. Monitors came and more and more beautiful things could be seen on it. Apart from programmers, composers, authors, actors and artists all participate in the creation of a game and the computer games business forms the largest branch of the entertainment industry. Destiny, the console game that was released this week, cost 500 million dollars to make, almost twice as much as the most expensive movie ever.
Games have gained enormously in popularity and sales, yet they command little respect. Music and film can be considered art; the written word literature and interactive artworks in museums receive praise. But the real culture vultures turn their noses up at a mix of all these elements.
The academic interest in games is lagging behind that of other art forms too. If scientists have been doing research into games, it is to examine whether they make you smarter, faster, addicted or more violent.
This is slowly beginning to change, also in Leiden. Games did come into play, but only now they are made explicit. Recently Leiden started to offer a minor in Game Studies, in which games will be approached in a art historical and philosophical way rather than a neurological one. The introductory course has already begun and all 35 spots for the minor are taken. Professor Comparative Philosophy and Political Thought Chris Goto-Jones [Asiascape : the original Dutch text wrongly states that Goto-Jones is professor of Eastern Philosophy], has won a NWO scholarship to research the ‘intersections of visual culture and political philosophy in Japan’. Last month Martin Roth was the first of the PhD students on this project who had to publicly defend his thesis.
 I believe that gaming culture and the game industry can profit greatly from more academic research into games’, Roth says. ‘Theory-based critique and methodical inquiry offer new perspectives on the medium. I also believe in the innovative force of a research-based scholarly critique, which is not only interested in judging how „good“ or “harmful” a game was but also looks at its content critically and against the background of our lives, our history and ideologies. With my thesis -and with the book I plan to publish sometime soon- I hope to stimulate a dialogue between the humanities and gamers.’
Art, and especially literature and film, enable us to get closer to the other.  A man who grew up in the nineties can better imagine what it must have been like to be a Jewish girl in World War II thanks to the diary of Anne Frank. In a similar fashion, art and games should be able to let us imagine something reallydifferent. Roth: ‘The world won’t change when you enact a soldier even if you haven’t been one yourself. The “Otherness” I’m interested in is the kind that hasn’t existed before but seems plausible to imagine. Science Fiction authors have tried to create Otherness in their works, with more or lesser success, and my question is if games might have the potential to do something similar.
The search for new possibilities of “Otherness” is central to my work, because these days we seem to live under the impression that the status quo is the only possibility. It scares me that I am not able to come up with an alternative to the current socioeconomic system. Perhaps videogames are capable of stimulating our thinking of radical alternatives because they put us in situations that don’t fit with our common views, opinions and experiences. In other words, when we are disrupted. Games manage not only let’s us experience new roles and situations remote from our sofas and daily lives, but are also capable of profound disruption on very basic levels of our experience and thought.’
If you mainly play Angry Birds or Candy Crush and don’t recognize these kind of gaming experiences: don’t worry. For his thesis, Roth used a selection of Japanese games that haven’t all gained much popularity in the Netherlands. ‘Japan has a long and rich gaming culture, which has influenced gaming globally worldwide. There is an enormous amount of Super Mariogames but there are also many notable exceptions. Plus, Japanese games are less violence-focused. My personal favorite is the Metal Gear Solid series precisely because it plays with violence in a very ambiguous way. The games in this series feature instances in which violence is directly criticized or in which the tragedies of war are displayed in a critical way. In some cases the characters in the game even directly address the player and confront him/her with the violent actions committed throughout the game, and the fact these were done solely for entertainment’s sake.’
Another example: ‘The time travel game Shadow of Memoriesconfronts the player with a world in which our concept of time does not make sense anymore. This game invites us to question our own understanding of time and its linearity. What does it mean to measure our entire lives in the same time - I worked 8 hours, you worked 10.  We spend time although we never seem to really have it, in the sense that it is ours to distribute freely. What kind of world would it be if we did have time? Would it work?
‘This is a rough sketch of my though process while playing the game and reading Paul Virilio’s political philosophy on time and the speed of our society. Games can speak to this, express it in a palpable way. Some games, at least, and and maybe only if you want to be disrupted.

Martin Roth, Disruptive Conflicts in Computopic Space – Japanese SF Videogames as sources of Otherness and Radical Political Imagination.
Date PhD defence: 27 August

Event announcement: New States and Societies in the Past and in the Future

The LIAS State & Society Network invites you to an exciting event on Thursday 12 June 2014, entitled New States and Societies in the Past and in the Future, with 6 PhD student presenters and 2 distinguished keynote speakers on topics ranging from garbage to church hierarchy and from Babylon to future imagination.

What can we learn from past and future states and societies today? Why should we care about their struggles, wars and transitions? What do they tell us about ours? The network’s spring event aims to address these questions by bringing together two distinguished scholars who work on the past and on the future with students from the network “State and Society” within the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies.


My State and Society (12:45 – 15: 00, Lipsius 307)
PhD students of the network give brief presentations of the states and societies they work on.

Renate Dekker-- The Social Integration of a New Church Hierarchy in Late Antique Western Thebes
Valantino Pamolango-- The Old and New Celebes (Sulawesi) - Indonesia
Martin Roth -- The State of Play
Aditi Mukherjee-- Negotiating Space: Refuge Colonies and the Indian State
Yun-An Olivia Dung -- Garbage Matters: Recycling and Wasting in Taiwanese Society
Sarthak Bagchi-- State and Society in India: a Journey from sammaan (Respect) to saamaan (Material Aspect)

Keynotes (15:30 – 18:00, Klein Auditorium, Academiegebouw)
We relocate to the Klein Auditorium of the Academiegebouw for the keynote lectures by our guest speakers. The session will be introduced and chaired by Erik-Jan Zürcher (LIAS).

Seth Richardson (Chicago) -- The Many Falls of Babylon: Anticipation, Reception and Mesopotamian State Collapse
Babylon in its day, like Rome, held a symbolic position as both the site of state collapse and as an “eternal” city.  This apparent paradox created an historical echo chamber which was productive of Mesopotamian notions of civic fragility and resilience for more than a millennium. I will try to grapple with not only the retrospective claims of reception histories of Babylon’s collapse(s), but their particular relationship to prospective evocations of state collapse in Mesopotamian thought: when is anticipation precipitation, and how?

Adam Roberts (Royal Holloway) -- Clerisies, Science Fiction and the Future of Society
In this lecture, Adam Roberts will talk about the way the two halves of his intellectual and creative life came together: science fictional thought-experiments about how society might be structured and 19th-century conceptions of 'the state' and political thinking.

Drinks (18:30 – 19:30, Grote Beer)
Please join us for drinks and further discussions in De Grote Beer, Rembrandtstraat 27.

We hope to see many of you on the 12th, for the network’s first spring event!

Martin Roth, Tero Alstola, Renate Dekker, Eftychia Milona, Daniel Soliman, Bastian Still, Caroline Waerzeggers and Erik-Jan Zürcher

7 May - Workshop '(Post-)Modern Futurities: New Directions in Anthropology, Area and Media Studies'

On May 7, a workshop will be held at Leiden University on the search for new directions in anthropology regarding the study of futures.

Time: 13-17hrs
Location: Bestuurskamer (Ground Floor), Pieter de la Court gebouw, Leiden University
Followed by drinks in the Bamboo lounge (3rd floor), Pieter de la Court gebouw, Leiden University

About the workshop theme
"Futurities" or forms of the future have distinct cultural histories and habitats. The division of labor that put "tradition" (or a normative addiction to past templates) in times and places other than modernity, and the future (usually in the shape of "development" or "modernization") in an imaginary Western civilization has itself lost its credibility, but that does not mean it has passed away. Moreover, new self-indulgent classifications of the West by the West have taken its place ("post-modernity"; "reflexive modernization"; "reduction to the present"; "acceleration"; "time-space compression"; and so on). Systematic research into the forms that the future takes after the rise of commodified, "empty" time in the Middle Ages, the "open" future of prognosis and progress in the early modern period, and the epochal consciousness of the period of revolution or Sattelzeit - as theorized by Barbara Adam, Reinhard Koselleck and Jacques LeGoff, among others - is rare. Yet, diagnoses of new forms of the future after modernity abound. This workshop reviews and presents recent research into forms of the future to find out what kind of research is needed to overcome that gap.

The workshop consists of four presentations from two,
NWO funded, Leiden research projects: the "The Future is Elsewhere" project led by Peter Pels (presentations by Pels and by Kripe/Zandbergen), and the "Beyond Utopia" project led by Chris Goto-Jones (presentations by Roth and Schneider). These presentations will then be used by three discussants as a stepping stone to illustrate the directions into which such research should be going. The discussants are Diny van Est (see Persoon & van Est 2000), Jane Guyer (see Guyer 2007) and Chris Goto-Jones.

Please register by emailing your name and surname to 

Peter Pels (Anthropology, Leiden):
"Towards an Ethnography of Modern Times: Seven Theses on the Anthropology of the Future"

Florian Schneider (LIAS, Leiden):
"The Futurities and Utopias of the Shanghai World Exposition - A Multimodal Discourse Analysis of the Expo 2010 Theme Pavilions"

Martin Roth (LIAS, Leiden):
"Another time? Narrative confusion and alternative temporality in videogames"

Zane Kripe & Dorien Zandbergen (Anthropology, Leiden):
"Kick-starting the future in the new economy: Perspectives from San Francisco, Amsterdam and Singapore"

Diny van Est (Netherlands Court of Audit)
Chris Goto-Jones (Leiden University)
Jane Guyer (Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University)

Recommended reading
People attending the workshop are advised to read the following articles (available online):

* Persoon, Gerard A. and Diny M. E. van Est. 2000. The study of the future in anthropology in relation to the sustainability debate. Focaal 35: 7-28

* Guyer, Jane I. 2007. Prophecy and the near future: Thoughts on macroeconomic, evangelical, and punctuated time. American Ethnologist 34 (3): 409-421

Asiascape Ops nr 6 : Japanese Science Fiction in Converging Media

In Asiascape's newest paper in the Occasional Paper Series (Asiascape Ops), Carl Li, Mari Nakamura and Martin Roth (all three are PhD students in the Goto-Jones' project Beyond Utopia), discuss the concept of alienation in Neon Genesis Evangelion:

Neon Genesis Evangelion protagonist Shinji Ikari
Japanese popular culture, represented primarily by manga and anime, has over the last couple of decades increasingly gained popularity both within and beyond Japan. Based on the assumption that this is partly due to their distinct qualities as media of political expression, this article aims to identify and discuss some of these expressions. Focusing on the SF franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion (hereafter EVANGELION), often regarded as a landmark in the history of Japanese animation, it will trace the recurring concept of alienation through the extremely popular anime (1995), the manga (1995–2012), and the videogame Neon Genesis Evangelion 2 (2003), thus offering an insight into their commonalities as well as their differences.
    “Alienation” is a central concept in modern social and political theory, as well as in sociology and psychology, and refers to “the condition of separation or estrangement.” For Karl Marx, who developed the most influential accounts of alienation in modern social and political theory, alienation is a central critique to modern capitalism. Analyzing the situation of wageworkers in the historical context of modern society, Marx observes that alienation occurs for them in four interrelated senses in capitalist society: alienation from the very product they produce, from the act of production, from their fellow workers, and from their “species-being.” Marx sees “species-being” as the unique human attribute which distinguishes human life from that of the animals, where one’s alienation from their “species-being” in a modern capitalist society is focused through the class structure and the proletariat experience. Thus for Marx, overcoming alienation requires a change in material conditions for a historically specific class of the proletariat by way of their revolutionary activities.

The full article is available at Issuu or can be downloaded as pdf on's Publication page.

An Amateur Utopia

A few weeks ago I attended a talk by Kinoshita Chigaya, Matsumoto Hajime, and Higuchi Takuro, about young people’s alternative politics in Japan. They spoke about their experiences and a loose group of young people around Matsumoto known as “Amateur’s revolt” (shirōto no ran) in particular, which gathers people in pursuit of an alternative lifestyle in the area around Kōenji station in West-Tokyo. Known for their spectacular events for quite some time, the group became internationally acknowledged for its involvement in organizing large-scale anti-nuclear demonstrations in Japan after 3/11. Matsumoto and Higuchi compared their experience with Japanese demonstrations to contemporary activism in other countries like the “occupy” movement in the U.S. (they had spent 10 days in a tent in Zuccotti park last autumn) or Taiwan. Here and there, they hinted at the possibility of an “amateurs’ utopia.”
Shirōto no ran was one of the key groups involved in the planning of the “Stop Nuclear Power Plants” demonstrations of 4/10, 6/11, 9/11 in Japan. According to Matsumoto, their suspected leading position (in fact, they were by far not the only actor) also made them target for the police, and after the 9/11 demonstration led to several arrests, they decided to take a step back and quit being majorly involved in organizing large-scale demonstrations. Of course, demonstrations did not cease but rather were organized all over the country more locally and on a smaller scale.
In their actions, they reshaped the image and maybe the idea of political protest in Japan variously. First, there seems to be no shared ideological agenda beyond the accumulation of personal interests and a general wish to live and act freely as equal human beings. Second, they don’t seem to be interested in convincing people about their ideas or in gaining more influence in society, for example by building a stronger organization. Listening to Matsumoto and Higuchi, one almost had the impression that their goal, at least to some extent, was to win a game against the authorities and their methods to repress demonstrations. By constantly inventing new crazy ideas nobody would expect, they turned the demonstrations into a kind of game of which they defined the rules each time anew and are still changing them in quite creative ways. In one of the demonstrations in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most frequented railway stations, they bypassed the problem that the demonstration was only permitted until a certain time by borrowing campaign cars of politicians, which are permitted to park on the street in front of the station for giving speeches, thereby preventing the arrest of demonstrators who now could be considered as people listening to the “politicians” at the microphone.
Their descriptions of their own as well as other and foreign demonstrations express amazement and joy about the “carnivalesque” atmosphere and the craziness and mixture of the participants more than the political success they may have. Furthermore, they do not expect commitment from anybody. In a strange sense, this indifference, combined with their creative activism, not only suggests a rethinking of the concept of political protest, but it also poses the question of participation and subjective beliefs to each individual from a new angle.
In a sense very democratic, their approach seems to propose accepting a wide range of opinions articulated in discussions. Matsumoto talked about small-scale demonstrations organized by local residents not experienced in organizing demonstrations or political protest in general, for which members of “Shirōto no ran” acted as advisors. With great pleasure he related how everybody from housewife to retired shopowner was allowed to state their opinion on all topics at hand (with opinions for example ranging from “no more nuclear power” to “better standards in nuclear power plants”) and the process of agreeing on a central statement took for hours. Matsumoto ended the account by pointing out that after the meetings, he was not sure if the title “Shirōto no Ran” not really should go to these people, thereby expressing respect for their engagement and the way in which they handled individual differences.
As a community of young people who choose an alternative life not dominated by money or reputation, but rather by the desire to do what they want, Shirōto no Ran provides a creative alternative to the life most people in Japan and elsewhere are used to. Ignore the people in power, Shirōto no Ran aims to create a “mysterious space where anything is possible for anybody who enters.” (Matsumoto) Yet, there still is some kind of ideological basis for all this. Asked about the problem that demonstrations might annoy other people, both Matsumoto and Higuchi argued that life in society is necessarily a burden on other people, and urged the audience to start to cause other people more trouble and communicate individual ideas and desires more openly. Here, I wonder what happens if this turns into the dominant ideology and what happens if such individual expression/lifestyle causes others harm.
At this point, I think Shirōto no ran has had a valuable influence on the Japanese political landscape and the demographics of its actors, at least of variety of age and opinions is the measure. Part of their appeal and potential stems from the fact that they show others that an alternative life and public expressions of political opinions are possible. In their refusal to force their ideas on other people, they at least seem to accept a position as one way among many and do neither claim superiority over other ideological positions, nor demand recognition of their knowledge and expertise. Could they be heading towards a kind of amateur utopia close to that envisioned by Adam Roberts in his New Model Army?

Experimenting with “New Model Army”

Some time ago, I had the pleasure to listen to a vivid, passionate and very entertaining talk Adam Roberts gave on ignorance, giants, and democracy, at the Leiden University College in The Hague. In contemporary democracies, says Roberts, the basic structure is that representatives (the head) are performatively elected by the necessarily ignorant people (the body) to make informed decisions. While the latter are informed and thus can always turn out wrong, Roberts claims that performative statements are acts and thus cannot be right or wrong. From this starting point, his book “New Model Army” is an attempt to conceive of a “total” democracy within a “headless” army (the giant) based on performance.
The book itself tries to convey that such a democratic giant without a head is much more effective than state-bound, hierarchical armies that exist today, because it facilitates a truly democratic mode of knowledge aggregation and decision-making. Roberts' “playful collective headlessness” that is the democratic army “Pantegral” is hired by the Scottish government to fight for the liberation of Scotland against the English army.
While the book surely is mind-blowing and highly recommended, because it outlines a very radical and profound form of democracy in one of the most violent situations imaginable (maybe it is this combination, that makes the project so fascinating) it also threw up some questions concerning the central role of technology in Roberts' concept, which I would like to address here.
In order to facilitate the democratic distribution of knowledge and decision making, Roberts introduces a multifunctional online network consistent of a “wiki” and a “wifi”, which are used by the soldiers to communicate, find information, and to vote on strategic decisions. The wiki is updated constantly by all soldiers who have updates and everybody is heard—at least, if the majority of listeners think the comment is relevant. It is guarded against enemy attacks by semi-intelligent protection software and connects the soldiers without demanding for any physical presence. This communication network further influences the ways in which the army acts and moves, and enables it to gather its forces or disperse, to form units of variable size and with different objectives all at once, with decisions made by all soldiers via vote. It is also the wiki, which serves as a platform for all necessary information accessible to all soldiers any time and, for Roberts, it follows that specialization (like medics, etc.) is not necessary any more, since everybody takes care of their gear and body themselves, and may ask for help via the wiki any time.

The human vs. the machine
The idea of a headless democracy is very appealing and seems to me somehow “more democratic” than its alternative. But given the description above, I am wondering whether the computed network system Roberts army relies on, might not have to be considered as another kind of head, although not one that takes direct action by deciding, but rather in the sense that this system serves as the central organ—the nervous system, without which everything breaks dow–of the giant and is limited by the information it contains through its databases or its members. These members of the army, it might be added, at some point have to make more or less informed decisions, and my guess would be that, as a tendency, “better” decisions keep the individual soldier alive longer. Leaving this last point aside, the question I would like to ask is, whether the “wiki” system is not itself an organizational principle that dictates interpersonal relationships via rationality of algorithms. Doesn't this make the giant somewhat techno-democratic? Exaggerating a little, one could say that the soldiers submit their “humanity” to the dictum of measurability. The book itself, where it describes the formations of small units of soldiers, or the love the narrator feels for one of his comrades whose death disturbs him considerably may hint at this tension and even serve as a counterargument. But this implies that true equality (in love, friendship, work) on a personal level may only be achieved, if the “human factor” is first short-circuited with the machine. But even with such measures taken, I would argue that, as long as discussion and interaction relies on oral or written language, such equality can never be achieved—precisely because it does not abandon all human-human interaction.

Science Fantasy?
The second question is more concerned with the genre of Science Fiction itself. Roberts novel draws on (social, political, and computer) science in its imagination of a (future) society, and thus is rightly called Science Fiction. But at the same time, I couldn't help wondering how the “wired-up” soldiers can update the wiki, talk to their comrades, kill several enemies while bombed from above, and make decisions on votes more or less at once. While aware of the potential science fiction has precisely due to its fictional, not yet scientific character, I admittedly kept asking myself, how alien a technology has to seem in order to be perceived as “super-human” or “magic”. That is, if the gap between the present and the fictional world is expressed through one or several unknown elements or artifacts and their effects on a society or an individual, my question would be, whether the label of technology is enough to make something “science” fictional as opposed to “fantastic”. In his “Short History of Photography”, Walter Benjamin (2002: 303) claimed that photography, because it can show what was hitherto hidden from the view by means of slow-motion and zoom, reveals the difference between technology and magic as profoundly historical variable. Turned around, I would argue that in fictional works, this variable represents a gap to the present—some kind of simulation gap “between the rule-based representation of a source system and a user’s subjectivity”, as game scholar Ian Bogost (2006: 107) conceptualizes it—that always opens a space for imagination and may be interpreted differently, thus leaving the decision between science fiction and fantasy to the reader, who may either work it out cognitively, or simply solve this question performatively without having to stick to what the majority has decided.


Benjamin, W. (2002). Kleine Geschichte der Photographie. In D. Schöttker (Ed.), Walter Benjamin - Medienästhetische Schriften(pp. 300-324). Frankfurt (Main): Suhrkamp.
Bogost, I. (2006). Unit operations: an approach to videogame criticism. Cambridge/London: The MIT Press.
Roberts, Adam (2010). New Model Army. Gollancz.

What is 'beyond utopia'

This ‘beyond utopia’ section is concerned primarily with issues arising from science fiction in a global setting. That is, here we are not only concerned with geographical or cultural parameters of cultural products and their implications, but rather with the genre and the issues to which interesting artifacts therein give rise. Hence, while the other sections of this site are framed by East Asia in various ways, this one is fundamentally framed by science fiction itself. It takes its name from the title of our major research project, 'Beyond Utopia: New Politics, the Politics of Knowledge and the Science Fictional Field of Japan.'