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October 23, 2010

Time: 10:15am

para097.tex

Braindance of the Hikikomori: Towards
a Return to Speculative Psychoanalysis
SCOTT WILSON
In preparing for his second visit to Japan, Lacan studied the Japanese language.
During the course of his studies, a singular idea seized him: he began to suspect
that because of the inherent nature of their language, the Japanese were neither
in need of psychoanalysis nor analyzable.
Kazushige Shingu1
There’s something magical about having all your equipment in the same room
as your bed, and you just get out of bed and like do a track and go back to
sleep and then get up and do some more and do tracks in your pants and stuff.
Richard D. James (Aphex Twin)2
Abstract:
This article takes its point of departure from late Lacan’s meditations on
the incompatibility of psychoanalysis with Japanese culture due to its nonEuropean linguistic basis. The article argues that this emphasis on language
narrowly conceived fails to keep pace with the interconnected, multi-media,
all-encompassing nature of the unconscious today. Illustrating this point, the
article focuses on the figure of the hikikomori: middle-class Japanese youths
who have withdrawn from all conventional social contact to indulge exclusively
computer-based interactions. Thanks to the overlap with the related figure of
the ‘Bedroom DJ’, the analysis then moves on to the ambient music of Richard
D. James, aka Aphex Twin. It argues for the validity of the concept of an ‘audio
unconscious’ distinct from Lacan’s unconscious ‘structured like a language’.
The final part of the article, however, examines one of James’s music videos
and discerns in it modes of jouissance that psychoanalysis can still describe.
Keywords: Aphex Twin, audio unconscious, hikikomori, Richard D. James,
Lacan, posthuman psychoanalysis, Tatsuhiko Takimoto
Paragraph 33.3 (2010): 392–409
DOI: 10.3366/E0264833410000970
© Edinburgh University Press
www.eupjournals.com/para

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Braindance of the Hikikomori 393

Language

The question of whether psychoanalysis has any bearing on those
‘post-humans’ (because it is unlikely to be everyone) for whom
technology enables different modes of being depends on the fate
of language. Psychoanalysis is only concerned with speaking beings,
parlêtres, in the neologism of Jacques-Alain Miller. For Jacques Lacan,
moreover, psychoanalysis can only be of use to beings speaking
European-style languages endowed with a signifier denoting ‘the
unary one’ (l’un unaire).3 Languages like Japanese, for example, that
are an effect of writing — calligraphy — fail to alienate in an abstract
signifier the subject who thereby becomes multiply fractured and even
dissolved in an embodied form of writing. Japanese desire is, for Lacan,
supported by ‘a constellated heaven’ of signifiers whose meaning varies
depending on ‘the relations of politesse (or even politeness) it implies
in its signified’ (L, 8). In the social bond established in Japanese
cultural practices, the subject of desire ‘is an element among others
of a ceremonial where the subject composes itself precisely in being
able to decompose itself ’ (8). Individual subjectivity in a Western
Cartesian sense is, so the idea goes, precluded in Japanese because
jouissance is subsumed into the ‘artistic’ formality of the social ritual —
from the ‘littoral’ gesture of writing itself to its ultimate expression in
seppuku or hara-kiri (ritual suicide by disembowelment with a sword).
The ‘decisive thing is the littoral condition (. . .), what Japan of its
letter has without doubt made for me this little too much’ (5). The
only comparable condition in the West is that of the artist who can
similarly become effaced in the excess of the signifier, ‘without doubt
this too much is owed to what art brings’ (5), suggests Lacan, citing
the example of James Joyce, supremely, as one who did not require
analysis because his art enabled him to go ‘straight to the best one can
expect from psychoanalysis at its end’ (1).
Lacan finds therefore, in the Japanese situation, not a deficiency
but another route to the analytic ‘cure’ in writing: writing the
‘sinthome’, a signifying formulation that exceeds meaning accessible
to interpretation, but nevertheless provides a means of organizing
jouissance and holding the subject together. For Joyce, regarded by
Lacan as having a psychotic structure, writing enabled him to make
a ‘name’ for himself and thus avoid a psychotic break.4
For Lacan, then, the utility of psychoanalysis depends upon the
signifying systems that both divide and tie together the speaking
being thereby defining its limits, producing variously some kind of

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always-already prostheticized, hybrid creature. Perhaps it is the case
these days that there is too much symbolization for psychoanalysis
to deal with. In the developed world, we are more than speaking
beings: we are multiply symbolized and symbolizing beings, counting
beings whose being is determined by statistics; we are textual beings in
a general sense in which the who or what of the subject is always
a question; we are networked beings in which a range of virtual
identities are determined in various profiles enabled and delimited
by different codes and algorithms. Are we, in this sense, becoming
Japanese, such that for an increasing number psychoanalysis has
become neither possible nor necessary?
The problem is that Lacan was wrong about Japan — or he has
become wrong, because psychoanalysis is now big in Japan.5 It is
possible that psychoanalysis is becoming a feature in Japan as an
effect of Americanization and the globalization of aspects of Japanese
culture that involve an apparent ‘perversion’ (père version) of American
culture:6 for example, the pervasive influence of American movies,
comics, animation and pornography has resulted in Japanese cinema
(Akira Kurowsawa as the Japanese John Ford), manga, anime, hentai
and even kinbaku (derived from the 1950s bondage illustrations of John
Willie and John Stanton). Fan culture, teenage obsessions and social
alienation, signature elements of the American way of life, now have
their own Japanese vocabulary: otaku, lolicon (from Lolita), hikikomori.
First coined by the Japanese psychologist Tamaki Saik¯o, who
claimed there are a million such individuals in his country, the term
hikikomori usually refers to a son or daughter of a middle-class Japanese
family who avoids all social contact and has withdrawn indefinitely
to his or her bedroom, or indeed any space whatever equipped with
a networked computer. Social contact, therefore, takes place purely
through remote symbolic means mediated by new technology. In
Welcome to the NHK (2007), where Tatsuhiko Takimoto gives novelistic
expression to the phenomenon of the hikikomori, the teenage sociopath
sunk in permanent bedroom squalor is offered psychoanalysis by the
girl who comes to help him.7 She first tries Freud, then Lacan. Neither
works, the latter largely because she finds his discourse too formidable.
The book nevertheless seems to suggest that Americanization has
introduced a fissure, a fundamental gap into the Japanese psyche that
renders its products ‘globalizable’, which is to say saleable in the West.
But it hesitates as to the utility of psychoanalysis in the face of global
networked culture, perhaps because it is not Japanese neurosis that the
novel fictionalizes, but psychosis. The central premiss of Welcome to

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Braindance of the Hikikomori 395

the NHK is a ‘paranoid’ fantasy in which the Japanese Broadcasting
Corporation, the Nippon Housou Kyoukai, is a front for a sinister
conspiracy called the Nippon Hikikomori Kyoukai. The NHK massproduce anime otaku, ‘thereby essentially creating hikikomori on a large
scale’ (16).
In the withdrawal from Japanese social rituals into a permanent
bedroom existence, then, and in the movement from calligraphy
to online-entertainments, particularly an unlimited horizon of
pornography, the ‘sinthome’ holding together the Japanese psyche
seems to have unravelled, apparently undone by a disorganization and
re-distribution of jouissance by different modes of symbolization: code,
wordless flickering images, electronica. What is to be done?
The first thing is not give up on psychoanalysis. On the one hand,
it is important for psychoanalysis to privilege the speaking subject
and defend subjectivity, supporting it with the full rigour of the
analytic situation. In this situation, of course, speech is everything.
On the other hand, there is an important psychoanalytic tradition
beginning with Freud that is not purely grounded in the analytic
situation but seeks to speculate on the limits of the human, even
on the possibility of a ‘post-human’ overcoming of the human, in
psychoanalytic terms. After all, in his speculative text Civilization
and Its Discontents, Freud famously described twentieth-century ‘man’
as a ‘kind of prosthetic God’, suggesting simultaneously that there
was something hyperbolic and deficient about the technologicallyenhanced, pre-eminently Western creature that sought to dominate
and control its world. Freud noted that, as magnificent as they were,
man’s auxiliary organs ‘have not grown on him and they still give him
much trouble at times’ with the result that ‘present-day man does not
feel happy in his Godlike character.8 Indeed, Freud’s point, throughout
his book, is to argue that the phantasmatic investment in the power
of prosthetics, the objects and tools that found his civilization and
enable him to transcend his given reality, simply exacerbate the sense
of deficiency from which the fantasy of transcendence derived. Here,
Freud not only anticipates the post-human idea that man is a hybrid,
prosthetic creature but that this hybridity is experienced as a problem
that is inseparable from the problem of sexual difference and the
desire for continuity (with God, Woman or Nature) that is felt to be
lacking. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud goes further, speculating
about external forces, most notably the death drive, that pre-exist and
transcend humanity even as they provide the immanent principles of
binding and unbinding, that only have meaning, as ‘life’ and ‘death’,

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for speaking beings. Perhaps it is time to speculate on the fate of a
psyche whose drives are produced by a range of different modes of
symbolization bound up in anorganic assemblages in various forms of
individuated units whose defining principle is not primarily speech, or
even language.
In this essay I look at three areas that illustrate a particular
modality of neoliberal post-human individuation — computer games,
management discourse and so-called intelligent techno and music
video — that are still comprehensible within a psychoanalytic
framework, but that may also provide an opportunity to speculate
on the psyche not just of speaking beings but of networked, textual
ones as well. I will suggest, as a beginning, that other systems of
symbolization — code, numbers, music — have their own unconscious
effects. It will be on the basis of the latter especially, music, that I will
propose the existence of an audio unconscious as opposed to, or in
conjunction with, the one supposed to be structured like a language,
as a means for psychoanalysis to address the challenge of post-human
individuation in an age where speech and language generally have a
diminished role.
The post-human psychic structure that I consider, however, is not
a more sophisticated upgrade, a kind of technologically-enhanced
master of information, but on the contrary a highly reduced protosubject supposed to be stripped down to its basic instincts and
processes as an effect of two currently dominant discourses: neoliberal
governance and neuroscience. While I am going to look mostly at
the former, it is no doubt the latter that, in its determination to
replace the ‘manifest image’ of the human being with a scientifically
reduced neurocomputational alternative, promises to justify and sustain
the former in its drive for economic efficiency in spite of occasional
financial calamities. The promise of cognitive neuroscience has been
added to the imperatives informed by cybernetics and information
theory that changed the world in the post-WWII era. Perhaps, soon,
financial crises can be avoided with the elimination of irrational human
impulses (currently understood in terms of greed, fear and panic) that
are based on the manifest image of human motives and behaviour
based in language. Rather, through being reconstituted within the
conceptual framework of completed neuroscience, economic theories
can become much more powerful and more substantially integrated
within physical science generally. The post-linguistic turn in cognitive
science is consistent with the attempt to by-pass, across a spectrum
of disciplines, political, institutional and socio-economic practices,

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Braindance of the Hikikomori 397

systems of symbolic mediation and representation in ‘an unlimited
operational project’ in which everything becomes immanent and
transparent.9 The promise appeals both to the desire for increased
economic performance and efficiency, but also for the benefits of
greater social interactivity and intimacy as brains directly interact with
each other via screens and scanners. The foreclosure from language and
the symbols of traditional ‘paternal’ authority that this entails implies a
change or even an eradication of subjectivity; it is this change which I
wish to address in this essay.

Games

It is well known that it was in game theory that the socio-economic
promise of scientific efficiency was sought precisely because it offered
a scenario in the absence of symbolic mediation like language, that
is, of a shared locus of value and law. For a significant time from
the Cold War period to the end of the twentieth-century and
beyond, game theory provided the mathematical basis for a range of
disciplines like economics, political science, sociology, evolutionary
and digital biology. Game theory seemed to give mathematical
legitimacy to evolutionary biologists like John Maynard-Smith and,
following him, Richard Dawkins, who discusses the theory at length
in his best-selling book The Selfish Gene (1989), first published in 1976.
Multi-layered phenomena from the geo-political expanses of intercontinental nuclear strategy to the microbiological machinations of
the gene all turn on smaller and smaller versions of the same unit
of calculating selfishness that is also the version of the individual at the
heart of neoliberalism. This self-interested subject is never named as
such, but is the pattern upon which each structure — the gene, the
self-interested individual, the superpower — is built, like the fern that
is made up of fronds that are smaller versions of itself which are in
turn made up of frondlets and so on. In honour of Dawkins, who
named the cultural version of the selfish gene the ‘meme’, I shall call
the fractal proto-subject of game theory the me-me. Me-me since
the ‘me’ is an effect of an essential mirror relation, an interminable
calculation of the other’s motives on the basis of one’s own: ‘I think
he thinks that I think that he thinks that I think . . . ’10 Without the
stability offered by a third term — a symbolic system of law, value and
social conduct — the me-me reflects and replicates itself endlessly, as
if in a mise-en-abyme, a hall of mirrors positioned over a void. Any

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discipline that is placed in this hall of mirrors becomes transformed
and is given a virtual consistency in its never-ending fractal structure.
Notwithstanding the reference to the fern, however, never-ending
fractals ‘do not really exist in our physical universe’, but like John
Conway’s Game of Life they can be used in simulations of life forms
‘in the digital universe of computers’.11 Appropriately, the me-me is
itself an effect of computational logic and therefore can be utilized and
controlled, in theory, according to systems of incentives and targets
that can be calculated and assessed by computers.
If the abstract image of the purely self-interested, pleasuredriven proto-subject of neoliberalism is a ‘paranoid (. . .) human
being sitting alone in a room’,12 then its actual realization is the
hikikomori. Generated and enabled by the proliferation of new media
entertainments, particularly video games and online pornography, the
hikikomori becomes the concrete realization of the neoliberal subject
that is defined by the horizon of maximum pleasure. Immaterially and
indefinably both at work and at play, modifying software, killing aliens
or masturbating, hikikomori have even been known to amass fortunes
playing online poker and trading securities.
Tatsuhiko Takimoto was the self-confessed hikikomori who hoped to
exploit his situation by jumping ‘on the tide of the times’ and making
‘a ton of money’ by writing a novel about the condition. Since Welcome
to the NHK quickly became both a manga serial and an anime series, it
is likely that he has succeeded. Reflecting on his pathology throughout
the process of writing the book proved to be painful, however, as
it details the main character’s descent into a ‘lolicon’ obsession with
online pornography through his attempt to develop ‘the greatest hentai
game ever’, an erotic interactive computer game. While the central
premiss of Welcome to the NHK is a ‘paranoid’ fantasy concerning a
conspiracy to mass-produce millions of hikikomori, the ideal consumers
of Japanese popular culture, through the seductions of manga, anime
and hentai, it nevertheless hints at, even as it exaggerates, the way in
which the production of neoliberal subjectivity, through the seductive
appeal of simulated, CG transgression, is also a means of governance.
The conditions for the practical emergence of the me-me subject
of game theory was established through the development of realtime animated combat games, broadly from the 1990s, such as
Doom, Quake, Marathon and Avara. These games are generally played
by people in their bedrooms against both computer-controlled and
human-controlled virtual opponents, the human controllers located
in similar rooms anywhere in the world. Everyone is the same, and

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everyone is hostile. ‘For players, the main game scene displays an image
of self, an other, an alien (by definition, a hostile other), and a “closedworld” setting’.13 But while the space is virtual, closed and therefore
apparently unmediated by paternal law, social morality and so on, there
is still the network and the software programme that provides the scope
and direction for action, and this combination has for some offered the
possibility of a new kind of post-human ethos of interactivity.
As Adrian Mackenzie notes, in his chapter ‘Losing Time at the
Playstation: Real Time and the “Whatever” Body’, interactive games
have been one of the most prominent tools used in the promotion
and marketing of home computers since the 1980s. However, he
also acknowledges that these games ‘stereotypically’ appeal to ‘a fairly
unpromising kind of individual’ who interfaces with closed worlds
‘purged of differences and mostly involving narratives that emphasize
extermination of differences rather than affirmative engagement with
them’ (T, 147). While acknowledging that the notional subject of
many of these games is coded with an assumed ‘gender-specific
interest’ that renders it very unpromising indeed with regard to social
inclusivity, Mackenzie in his analysis wishes to probe further to a
more profound layer of pre-individual, pre-differentiated singularity
unfiltered by ‘dominant codings’ (153). He adopts Giorgio Agamben’s
notion of the ‘whatever’ that designates human nature as devoid of
essence and full of an infinite potential to be ‘whatever’. A human
being and a human body have endless possibilities, continuous
resourcefulness so long as they are involved in a process of emergence
that is not pre-programmed or pre-determined. Such a process
necessarily involves a movement from potential to actual, common
to proper, and it is in the manner of emergence or engendering
that becomes the focus for an ethos, according to Agamben.14 In his
chapter, Mackenzie locates a version of this ‘whatever’ being, in play
at the games console, in the mediating position between body and
image. Both human and machine, the ‘informatic whatever’ becomes
the reference of an ethos through which can be managed presumably
more promising modes of individuation within circuits of information.
Mackenzie finds such a promise in the temporality associated with
a form of play whose de-sacralization can be seen as an event that
inaugurates change and therefore history. This form of play that is open
to unexpected and unanticipated events is differentiated both from
the temporal structure of sacred ritual, from which it is nevertheless
derived, and the classical economic structure where time is money.
While acknowledging the economic appropriation of play in the

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commoditization of toys and the making and marketing of computer
games, the real problem with computer games ought to lie in the fact
that all interactivity is actually pre-programmed. Mackenzie’s idea of
losing time at the Playstation is not, then, that game-playing is an
unproductive waste of effort — it certainly is productive since at the
very least it can be regarded as a kind of training. But it may involve
a loss of time in so far as all occurrences in computer games are predetermined. In this sense, time at the Playstation would be lost because
nothing happens and there is actually no play at all. Happily, this is not
the case, argues Mackenzie. Time at the Playstation is gained and a
profit made not just because play can be utilized as a form of training,
but this training is enhanced significantly when play is genuine in
the interactivity between body and image, and in the ‘incalculability
of delays stemming from the anticipatory element of any gesture’,
especially when one is involved in playing a competitive game with
others.
For his example Mackenzie selects Avara, one of the real-time
animated combat games from the 1990s. In giving his impressive
technical analysis of the game, Mackenzie is coy about relating his
experience as a player, perhaps not wishing to characterize himself
as one of the stereotypically ‘unpromising’ individuals associated with
these games:
A much younger friend of mine is always urging me to play computer games.
Agreeing to try this game with him, something struck me as he quickly won a
succession of games. He was not only anticipating most of my movements, and
my gestures, he was also anticipating and manipulating in certain ways the delays
introduced by the network we were playing on. (T, 166)

The much younger friend’s skill in apprehending the computer game’s
‘latency tolerance’, as it is called, not only allows him to win
game after game; it also materializes his ‘whatever’ body, according
to Mackenzie. And it is precisely this materialization that provides
Mackenzie’s conclusion with the object of his ethical concern and
promise. ‘Understanding this materialization as the “whatever” body
entails the step of apprehending the linkages between bodies and
images in the game as the incipient ethos of an informatic whatever’
(169). Mackenzie is appropriating Agamben’s notion of ‘ethos’ which
is defined by the latter as ‘the sphere that recognizes neither guilt
nor responsibility; it is (. . .) the doctrine of happy life’.15 However,
I’m sure that Mackenzie is not suggesting that the incipient ethos
of Avara’s ‘informatic whatever’ is simply the manner or modality in


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