Further Notes on Capitalism and Evangelion

by tigermanifesto


Once we’re done overcoming our abandonment issues and trauma, we can have a shopping spree!

In a couple of places, specifically in my discussion of Revolutionary Girl Utena and my recent post on the death of the author and Neon Genesis Evangelion, I have criticized works of art for being individualistic. In both cases, there have been responses characterizing my criticism as being reductionist, collapsing psychology completely into the sphere of the economic. Marxist criticism does have a tendency to lapse into an essentialist and simplistic discussion of how the economic base influences the superstructure and, in many case, vice versa. The post on Evangelion and Barthes eventually found its way onto Reddit, and prompted this response. It reads, in part:

“Edit: As I understand it, the paragraph seems to be saying that the psychological (Hedgehog’s dilemma and whatnot) should have been entirely reduced to the social and economic (Marxist class struggle, I guess). It makes more sense to me, however, that both psychological and social explanations have their place (neither should be fully reducible to the other), and that it’s not a problem if a single work of art (like Eva) focuses on the psychological to the exclusion of larger economic and social forces. Maybe someone here who has actually read some Marx can inform me if I’m mischaracterizing the author’s statement.”

This seems to be responding to a small passage in my post, which was only using Evangelion as an example rather than specifically being about the show. I wrote:

At the same time, its bleak sense of apocalypse never transcends the individual, makes the individual psyche the centre of its narrative, and understands our current oppressed situation not as the result of a historically contingent capitalist mode of production that can be transcended through revolutionary activity. Instead, the solution is simply to seize control of our own lives, stop relying on others to define our precious identities, and recognize that we shouldn’t be so selfish and cowardly because we hurt others.

Because I was only using the show as an example within a larger piece, I resorted to a quick gloss that fails in many ways to actually explain why I think Evangelion, in the last instance, fails to break out of capitalist ideology. It was probably a mistake to attempt to criticize such a complex show in a single paragraph. To clarify: I don’t think that the show is wrong for focusing its energies on exploring the psychology of individuals. Depression, the thorniness of intimacy (i.e. the Hedgehog’s Dilemma), the crushing weight of expectations, the tensions between parents and children, between change and continuity, between terror and courage, are all worth exploring. Moreover, the show is able to mount a stinging criticism of how societies–particularly the Japanese society–tends to instrumentalize its citizens, particularly the young, turning them into “worker-samurai.” Evangelion’s strongest virtue is as a diagnosis of crisis, how capitalist social relations destroy the very individuals it claims to liberate.

Unfortunately, while it recognizes the nature of the problem, it never transcends the realm of the individual. Shinji’s final reconciliation with himself (in the show, the film End of Evangelion being another matter entirely) and self-realization are portrayed as the solution. He stops relying on others to prop up his ego, collapsing in weakness whenever he fails to earn the approval of his father and peers. He has, in effect, gone through a highly intensive therapy session over the course of the show, finally arriving at a moment of integration with himself and others. All of this is fine, as far as it goes. But criticism needs to address not just what a show is and how well it executes on its basic premises and style and so on. It also needs to understand that every piece of mass culture is produced as part of a system that reinforces ideology but is also a site of struggle over how society is/should be organized. Evangelion does a number of things right. I love how it explores insecurity and abandonment, reflecting the social disintegration of Japan that took place under its shock transition to capitalism and the deep malaise that has settled over it since the bubble burst in the early 90s. In the final instance, however, we have to acknowledge that the show is not revolutionary. It is therapy, a way to deal with and accept our own individual problems. This could be a prerequisite to becoming politically active and working to overthrow bourgeois hegemony and establishing socialism, but it could also just help us “lean in” and comfort ourselves with the status quo. Another point that would be worth exploring, but which I have no room to do here, is the way that the show has become essentially commodified into a safe and even fetishistic object. The way that it has been appropriated and received by fans, who are rightly loathed by their creator, also plays a role in criticism. Perhaps I’ll write on that another time.

None of this undermines Evangelion’s claim to being enjoyable and thought-provoking. I’m merely arguing that its narrative is structured in a way that is captive to individualism. Within that limitation, it’s a fine piece of work, but I don’t think it’s necessarily reductionist to hold the show up to the necessity of revolution and finding it somewhat wanting in that regard. In my original post, I leapt too quickly into economics, but the point is that Evangelion is not significantly deviant in terms of capitalist ideology, and it might be reinforcing the essential basics of bourgeois individualism while critiquing some of the trauma and alienation that grow out of capitalist social relations.