siren songs of 1958

This is a short film made in 1958 by Alain Resnais, who would later become famous as the director of the short film Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) and the feature film Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I have always admired the way his films use counterpoints of sound to show us what we, in fact, do not see–or what is no longer there to be seen, and has paid a price, usually of life and lives.

In this 13-minute pipeline to the past, I love the gap between the regal intoning, usually reserved for scarce luxuries in CMs and from old times, and the massive glut of plastic flow that comes from the factory, and is traced back to its origins in rocks and geological time. It’s a song of eternal nature and how to regard it as a human product, one that fits just right for our age.

This film, as opposed to others of Resnais and his crews, is full, and then some. I am riveted by it, to start, because of its mock-heroic narration. (This tone is preserved in a few English terms like “captains of industry,” but maybe the new world has not yet processed enough of its past deeds to have narrated its distance with such a full voice.) The script is an epic poem composed by Raymond Queneau, the alchemical poet of Oulipo who invented new words based on old forms for this script, to tell the epic story of The Origin of Plastics (plural, for the possibilities). This flexible medium also enabled the torsion of words into new forms, some kinetic, some just vividly imagistic, in the medieval and oral tone of alexandrine verse, the “leading measure of French poetry,” says 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica. A formidable explication of the film is found in Edward Dimendberg’s “These Are Not Exercises in Style,” originally published in October. Here is a rewarding passage from this exceptionally rewarding article (worth reading in its entirety for its close attention to form vis-ā-vis the experience of consumer ideology and ubiquity).

Already in its title Le Chant du styrène introduces intertextual allusion, manifesting what Michel Riffaterre calls the dual sign, the first of many in both poem and film.7 For as any speaker of French notices, styrène rhymes with sirène and proposes the collaboration of Resnais and Queneau as a contemporary song of the sirens. Its mermaids—the consumer products and industrial objects in the newly emerging culture of plastics in 1950s France—beckoned to both men with irresistible charm. Apprehending and granting them voice with ironic bemusement, Resnais and Queneau’s film simultaneously grasps the deeper stakes implied by the turn to synthetic materials. At once advertisement and public relations effort, a primer on the manufacture of plastic compounds that had begun to transform postwar French life, The Song of Styrene is also…an allegory of material and semiotic production. It provides a revealing window onto the French political and global economy of the late 1950s, rewarding close reading with a veritable return of repressed geopolitical relations.

Evoking the chansons de geste, epic poems of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that celebrated Charlemagne and recounted illustrious heroic deeds, Queneau’s narration for the film, his chant, basks in the incongruity between its style and subject matter (65).

This film came out in 1958, also something like the annus mirabilis of Japanese cinema–the year with the highest number of movie-goers, soon to cede slowly, if not epically, into the more home-bound realm of TV viewers. At present I am watching many science films from 1958 Japan, sponsored, like this one, by large industries, with bricolaged crews of artists, scientists, doc film people, and bureaucrats (or their business-like and educational equivalents). Many of these films, known as 科学映画 (kagaku eiga)、are now preserved on line at the Science Film Museum, where you may see them.

New Publication! March 10

Here’s the cover for a new book out on Duke University Press, in which I have a chapter. It’s edited by long-time colleagues Marc Steinberg and Alex Zahlten. My piece is about the artist Rokudenashiko, who has been challenging some of the highest laws of the land (Japan) with her hand-sized sculptures and other works. She uses her body in funny, plastic ways–molds shaped on the curves and whorls of her vulva–to make tableaux and art pieces. She was jailed twice for these pieces, brought up on charges of obscenity.

Rokudenashiko’s arrest and trial for transmitting the scanned data of her body to crowd-funding supporters is still ongoing. It has brought a new kind of art activism into the public arena, bringing humor and tenacity to the use of the body as an art form. For me, she approaches the “theory” of the book’s theme through the practice of speculative design, using plastic materials to challenge standards that regulate women’s bodies and want them to transform in ways useable for the state–standards that threaten to extend the definition of obscenity into the pre-artistic realms of data collection and transmission.

There’s other good stuff in the book, too, by way of introducing major figures and movements who have contributed to 20th/21st c. approaches to media in Japan!

Press briefing after the Rokudenashiko verdict


Rokudenashiko’s new translation (in bright turquoise) and other books, as well as manko-chan figurines, decorate the table, as media members await the arrival of Nashiko and her legal team.










In early afternoon on a Monday, a crowd and an array of microphones and video-cameras assembled in the basement hall of the Hibiya Public Library, for a post-verdict press briefing on the three counts of obscenity that Rokudenashiko was charged with in 2014.

In this blog post, I pull together some contexts of the trial, some excerpts and observations from the press briefing, and some AV materials. Given that both prosecution and defense will appeal, it is not “game over” yet. At the end, I pull out some concepts that the academic- and activist-minded could use to help build a rhetoric of advocacy for the next stage of the game.

Mapping the space of conversation

The setting is the edge of Hibiya Park, a short walk from many government ministry and official buildings. The verdict of Rokudenashiko’s trial was scheduled for 1:00pm at the Tokyo District Court, one of these buildings; the press briefing started a little after 3:00pm. As we ponder the significance of the verdict, and how the de-briefing worked, let’s first look at the locations of these events.

A nine-minute stroll from the centralized legal sphere, the court, to a space where public sentiment has been displayed since the Meiji era, Hibiya Park.

A nine-minute stroll from the centralized legal sphere, the court, to a space where public sentiment has been displayed since the Meiji era, Hibiya Park.

Hibiya Park is a big chunk of greenspace in an otherwise heat-island prone part of the official paper-moving part of Tokyo, its ministries and government buildings. The city’s Bureau of Construction describes it as a “green oasis in a business town.” Tom Havens writes, in his book on parks in modern Tokyo since the 1870s, that “starting with the Hibiya demonstrations of 1905 some city parks also served as “spaces of representation.” He sees Hibiya Park through geographer Henri “Lefebvre’s terms, where commoners aired views on public affairs and reconfigured parklands to create geographies of opposition to officialdom” (5). A “geography of opposition” can mean many ways of inhabiting pre-existing urban space and forms. Hibiya Park is notable because the 1905 demos that Havens refer to catalyzed a large wave of public protest after a treaty was passed that left Japanese people holding the (money) bag at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War, and resulted in outrage after word reached the streets. As historian Andrew Gordon writes,

On September 5, 1905, a massive three-day riot erupted in Tokyo protesting the disappointing terms of the peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War. A decade earlier, after emerging victorious in the Sino-Japanese War, Japan had demanded and received a huge indemnity from defeated China. Although the war with Russia was far more costly in casualties and money, both sides were exhausted by 1905 and Japan was in no position to demand an indemnity from Russia. Because the Japanese public had been bombarded with reports of victory after victory, expectations of a profitable peace settlement were high and the outrage when this did not materialize was enormous.

In the case of Rokudenashiko’s trial and her team’s advocacy for her position, the “opposition” is less than it was in 1905 about streaming in from the outside and sparking damage to the governance who betrayed them, rippling into its environs. It is more about changing the terms of this governance that unjustly limits and stabilizes the meaning of sex and bodies by engaging with the legal structures that define and sculpt the kinds of representations–kinds of art and symbolic production–that are allowed in the public sphere.

As lawyer Yamaguchi Takashi noted, the imagined “character” (my word) of the trial, as we imagine its impact on a real person, is “a regular person” (一般人). It’s not the hypothetical person who has an appetite for niche kinds of pervy things (変態性欲), such as, say, a photo-book of powershovels. (An audience member in Q-and-A gave this example to maintain that anyone can be excited by anything, and defining sexual parameters is difficult. Yamaguchi said that this was not the definition the court sought.) The key point in this trial is a definition of morality for the typical, general, average person–who presumably is not turned on by powershovels. The definition attempts to assert, but not to expand, a definition of normal sexuality.

The venue itself

Some music and videos gave a feisty and slightly hectic vibe, playing to the room of reporters, writers and regular people. (I mention these types because they identified themselves as such in the Q-and-A period). Below is a version posted May 10, the day after the verdict. It incorporates the “split decision” nature of the verdict.

Draped over each empty seat was an A3-sized copy of the Manko shinbun (Pussy Paper), below. This issue is pretty text-heavy.


The text-to-image ratio actually reminded me of the weekly-magazine graphics like this one that Gordon includes in his article.

The Tokyo Riot Graphic, No. 66, Sept. 18, 1905. Source: MIT VIsualizing Cultures archive.

The Tokyo Riot Graphic, No. 66, Sept. 18, 1905. Source: MIT Visualizing Cultures archive.

I was curious what kind of entry the team would make, as the doors, like most auditoriums, were at the rear, and the venue was perfect for the sort of hip-hop triumph stride, or avant-garde theatre “surprise” stride down the aisles. But in fact, what happened was that most people read about the verdict on Twitter, some cameras vanished to get Rokudenashiko on film as they approached the venue, and the team walked in like regular people, before assembling on the stage, with computers (for fact-checking with Google-sensei), water bottles and regular professional gear.

The proceedings

Nashiko herself wore a modest but elegant black dress not inappropriate at a funeral, or a cocktail party. I had a pretty great viewing position, a clear shot to the stage, right behind Fuji TV and TBS cameras.


The legal team consisted of 7 people; lead lawyer Yamaguchi Takashi is pictured here to Rokudenashiko’s right. The sign reads “partially not guilty,” a paraphrase of the verdict.










…to be continued, when I have wrapped up some student projects and other deadline-driven work.