Review of Administering Affect: Pop‐Culture Japan and the Politics of Anxiety By Daniel White, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2022. 264 pp.

Reviewed Book

Administering Affect: Pop‐Culture Japan and the Politics of Anxiety By Daniel White, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2022. 264 pp.

Cover of Administering Affect (2022)

Michael Berman

Brown University

Does the state produce and administer affects? If so, how might that change our understanding of the state as a historical form? In Administering Affect: Pop-culture Japan and the Politics of Anxiety, Daniel White works through ethnographic data obtained through fieldwork with government agencies in Japan to analyze ways that different affects, such as anxiety, move between people, institutions, and nation-states. He does so while building on nuanced theoretical writings in affect theory, offering a framework based on the concepts of “gapping,” “feedback” or “looping,” and “transduction”; acts of separating affect and emotion, the cross-influence of discourse and feeling, and the mechanisms by which somatic affects are turned into discursive formations and vice versa. While the focus of the book is on soft power operating through the “national figure” of “Pop-Culture Japan”—an assemblage consisting of anime, cuteness, style, and fashion, etc. attributed to “Japan”—the author’s framework yields insights that extend beyond Japanese officials’ engagements with soft power and pop-culture.

The most compelling argument of the book is that anxiety binds the nation to the state vis-à-vis the bodies and gendered positionalities of bureaucrats. For the male bureaucrats of Japan with whom the author worked, the nation appears as constantly at risk. Internally, it is precarious, facing the problems of economic stagnation and an aged and shrinking population. Externally, the shifting political-economic and geopolitical organization of the world has made it more difficult to claim Japanese superiority, which, in turn, makes it more difficult to guarantee safety through influence. When one thinks of the nation as a person—a coworker, a friend, or perhaps even a parent—this inability to protect or guarantee security becomes anxiety. As the author puts it, “Thinking of international relations as a kind of interpersonal relations amplifies a sense of geopolitical insecurity that manifests as personal anxiety” for state bureaucrats (40).

In contrast to more social-anthropological, semiotic, or psychological definitions of anxiety, the anxiety that White writes of is situated between precarity and hope. It invokes a unique temporality. The solution to this perceived national insecurity cannot be found in a nostalgic past, since the conditions that facilitated imagined past glory no longer hold. Rather, the solution, some bureaucrats feel, is in a future where an appreciation for Japanese “culture,” spread through culture industries rather than war machines or direct state action, creates care and safety for the nation. This orientation creates a feedback loop that shapes the timespace and imagination of administrators, with “an anxious present driving hope for the future; unanswered hope aggravating anxiety in the present” (22). It also encourages the turn to soft power as a means of influence, albeit one whose efficacy is unclear.

Such a formation of history, affect, and nation is perhaps most poignant for states such as Japan, that, since the loss of World War II, cannot turn directly to military force and aggression as sources of influence; that is, states that cannot imagine their capacity for “legitimate” physical violence as extending beyond their somewhat well-defined, if porous and contested, borders. This sets up a seeming contradiction whereby to make soft power work, to the degree that it does, it becomes more effective to efface the role of the state. When the state, as reified individual, is felt to lack violent means to power, bureaucrats emphasize national “culture” to justify its imperialist and/or capitalist tendencies, depending on the specific government agency to which they belong.

White is careful not to present the state as a monolith. He highlights its internal multiplicity by focusing on the different orientations toward soft power, the nation, and the state among representatives of different agencies. In this multiplicity, too, anxiety binds the state to the nation, albeit in conflicted ways. Using examples such as the Japan Foundation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it becomes clear that “individual state agencies can share a vocabulary while disagreeing on what that vocabulary means and how it should be applied” (94). Interagency competition over meaning and resources can itself foment anxiety, which ironically renders the nation as a somewhat unified object of that anxiety (101).

Despite attentiveness to the fractured pluralities of the state, the purview of the book feels constrained by its heavy reliance on the utterances of bureaucrats interested in “Pop-Culture Japan.” In leaning on such material, the critical insight of the book is limited by the framework of its object of critique. This is perhaps a challenge of ethnography more broadly, but its impact feels heightened when the object of analysis is state representatives working to increase the circulation of signs of a nation. So-called “soft power” is never entirely separable from the violence and power imbalances that open paths along which “culture” and desire flow. Even if we focus on anxiety and bureaucrats in Japan, might not the imperialist violence of Japan create anxiety for representatives of Japan who work to counter ongoing memories of that violence? And does not the impact of the atomic bomb and atomic energy not seep into the nation and state through anime full of signs of disaster, warfare, and mass death, for example? These elisions stem from the author’s explicit focus not “on what soft power is or how it can be applied but rather what it does at the level of everyday bureaucratic process” (10), but what does this mean when governments seek to use soft power to overcome historical animosities for purposes of security and economic gain?

Highly reflexive and partially pre-empting this critique, the book’s conclusion grapples with anthropology’s affects. The author argues that the sharing of affect, including anxiety about the nation, sets up an ethical mode of anthropological inquiry (193). The conclusion also gestures toward alternate engagements with anxiety. The author usefully builds on snippets throughout the book to show how the state’s anxiety and engagement with pop culture can itself produce anxieties among Japanese people, especially women, who do not share the same relation to the nation as male bureaucrats. Even as state administrators’ anxiety moves through academia, the work of artists, and consumers, it produces a feeling of what the author calls “melancholic belonging,” “a source for alienated subjects to cultivate resistance … and ultimately an affectively detached accommodation to national identity” (174). I am left feeling anxious about what kind of “resistance” arises from melancholy, but perhaps that is a question best posed to students, whose understandings of affect theory and pop-culture would certainly be enhanced by engaging with the framework offered by this book.