Associate Professor, Modern Japanese Studies Program, Hokkaido University
In his 1923 discussion of “primitive speech” Bronisław Malinowski argues that “language” does not simply function as “an instrument of reflection” for conveying and developing informational content, but “in its primitive function,” it has “an essentially pragmatic character” as “a mode of social action.” He coins the term “phatic communion” to describe such a pragmatic propensity to use language for the creation and maintenance of social “ties of union,” drawing on the image of the Eucharist: “The breaking of silence, the communion of words is the first act to establish links of fellowship, which is consummated only by the breaking of bread and the communion of food” (Malinowski 1923, 314–15). The quintessential example is formulaic greetings, such as “How are you?”: While vacuous in their informational content, he argued, these utterances work to bring people together in “pure sociabilities” (ibid.; cf. Simmel 1949; Goffman 1971).
While Malinowski’s view is mostly oriented to speech, Roman Jakobson’s (1960) redefinition of the concept as “phatic function” gives it wider analytic applicability for studies of diverse media forms. For Jakobson, the phatic function, one of the six functions of a communicative event, refers to the capacity of a communicative event to draw attention to its “channel” or media. For example, a tap on a microphone phatically draws attention to the integrity (or failure) of the technical channel, and greetings and leave-takings work to mark an “opening” and “closing” of the channel of conversation. Similarly, various types of bodily (non)coordination serve to index a beginning, end, modification, or struggle in the channel of a social relationship; for example, eye contact may signify an invitation to a conspiratorial channel for one party while for the other it may be completely coincidental and forgettable.
More generally, phatic communication concerns the logistics and ideologies of contact: the organization of communicative channels through which physical, emotional, or social contact is established and avoided, measured and violated, and instrumentalized and prioritized. Framed this way, phaticity’s relevance to contemporary media culture becomes evident. Vincent Miller offers an apt shorthand, updating Bill Gate’s 1996 dictum: In contemporary media culture, “content is not king, but ‘keeping in touch’ is” (Miller 2008, 395). As Miller (2008) suggests, concerns over contact have increasingly become central to the networked society, which he dubs “phatic culture.” Accordingly, the phatic function has been explored in analyses of diverse media technologies and practices, such as television (Frosh 2011), radio (Kunreuther 2006), clicktivism (Miller 2017), selfies (Jerslev and Mortensen 2016), Snapchat photo sharing (Kofoed and Larsen 2016), and “likes” (Faucher 2013). On the other hand, the proliferation of interfaces of contact in everyday life also witnesses development of various “do not disturb” apps and features that enable “avoidance” of contact (Plaut 2015).
In a further reformulation of the concept, Julia Elyachar (2010) proposes the idea of “phatic labor” to refer to the work of managing diverse channels of social relations, a process often backgrounded, underrated, and gendered (for the notion of “phatic experts,” see also Lemon 2013). This formulation is useful in linking communication-as-contact explicitly to the realm of economy, especially “affective” economy in postindustrial societies (Hardt 1999). In particular, phatic labor strongly resonates with “immaterial labor” (Lazzarato 1996) and “emotional labor” (Hochschild 1983), as exemplified in the service labor of care, protection, facilitation, transfer, and coordination. In the affective economy, the management of human-to-human or human-to-object affective contact has become a kind of value in and of itself—irreducible to commodities. Consumers are not simply using some channel of circulation to reach their desired content, but their attention is increasingly drawn to the channel itself as a site of desire. On the other hand, businesses of the culture industry see in the shifting valorizations of “content” and “contact” a further potential for capital accumulation, and the institutionalization of contact allows them to newly exploit consumer desire for intimacy and immediacy. Phaticity indexes an emergent field of socioeconomic intervention.
Such intervention in phatic communication may be most visibly identified in celebrity culture, where the logistics of contact between celebrities and fans contributes greatly to the valorization of intimacy (Jerslev and Mortensen 2016). The case of Kawaei Rina, a former member of the hugely popular Japanese mega idol group AKB48, pointedly reveals this significance of phaticity to affective economy.
On May 25, 2014, Kawaei and her fellow idol member Iriyama Anna were violently attacked at an AKB48 meet-and-greet event in Iwate prefecture by a man in the audience, who rushed toward them wielding a fifty-centimeter folding saw. Kawaei suffered cuts to the arm and a broken finger, and Iriyama suffered similar injuries. The man was arrested by the police at the scene of crime and later indicted on charges of assault and possession of weapons. The two idols were immediately hospitalized, and their scheduled appearances on radio and television programs and promotional interviews were cancelled. While they returned to the public eye soon after, it is widely thought that they suffered posttraumatic stress disorder, a contributing factor to Kawaei’s eventual withdrawal from the idol group in 2015.
The twenty-four-year-old culprit reportedly said that he infiltrated the AKB48 event because he was looking to kill someone in “a place where many people gather.” Neither Kawaei nor Iriyama was his target, nor did he even know their names. “It could have been any AKB48 member,” he said. While he made various statements regarding his true motive, it still remains an object of speculation.
The seeming randomness and senselessness of the assault, as well as the fact that it occurred in broad daylight to one of the most widely known idol groups in Japan, prompted heated media coverage and public discussion over the commercialization of intimacy and, more specifically, the nature of the “meet-and-greet” event in which the assault happened.
This type of fan-idol contact is more specifically called akushukai (handshaking event). Such contact events index a general trend in the Japanese entertainment industry. The ritualization of fan-celebrity “intimacy” through personalized contact has become a crucial aspect of the larger media ecosystem in which the industry is situated (Lukács 2010; Galbraith and Karlin 2012). While there are many types of such events, akushukai are more specifically associated with idols. If in literary fandom a handwritten autograph serves as evidence of reader-writer contact, akushukai in idol culture ritualize affective exchange through concrete bodily contact, that is, literally through touch.
Interestingly, the word sesshoku, an ordinary term meaning “contact” in Japanese, has been recontextualized as a slang-like expression within fandom to refer to this specific modality of idol contact. Idol franchises like AKB48 are seen as “sesshoku idols” because they prominently feature handshaking events (or the equivalent), while groups like Perfume and BABYMETAL are consciously promoted as non-sesshoku idols.
Sesshoku is at the heart of AKB48. The group debuted in 2005 with the slogan “idols you can meet” (ai ni ikeru aidoru). As an orchestration of intimacy, the handshaking event gives concrete substance to the meaning of “meeting.” While handshaking provides an interface for fans and idols to coconstruct affect, no fan fails to recognize its embeddedness in the wider structure of economic exchange: Fans obtain a “ticket” (akushu-ken) to a handshaking event by purchasing AKB48’s special-edition CD releases with which it is bundled. “Fans are not purchasing CDs (music) so much as they are buying an experience that resonates with emotional meaning intensified through the frequency of their investment in the idol” (Galbraith and Karlin 2012, 21). Content is deliberately constructed as a means to obtain a right to contact—the right to touch and be touched by the idol.
It should be noted that handshaking, as a genre of bodily contact, is not an expected routine in ordinary Japanese social encounters. Its distribution is rather limited, for example, to cross-cultural encounters or scenes of political agreement. Everyday handshaking would be a rather marked behavior, even a playful or staged citation of such scenes; that is, handshaking already invokes a sense of fantasy. Thus, akushukai are not an extension of everyday reality. Rather, they intensify what is already fantastic and in fact lacking in the everyday.
In the space of akushukai, individual AKB48 members each take position in a booth-like space that forms at the end of a “handshaking lane” (akushu-rēn) in which fans form a queue, a channel of contact assigned to each of the idols. The general lane information—how many of them will be installed, which idols will be featured, etc.—is announced prior to the event on AKB48’s official website. But the lane information is also shared in the unfolding of the event in a manner that may be described as phatic monitoring. A large bulletin board is often set up in the venue with numerous memos posted. Each of these memos refers to a specific lane, informing the fans of its current status. For example, one memo would announce, “Lane number 62: the idol is having difficulty with her voice [thus she may not be able to greet verbally].” Another would say, “Lane number 40: the idol has experienced injury on her right hand, and can only shake hands with her left hand.” This phatic monitoring configures the health condition of the idol as contiguous and consubstantial with that of the lane, assimilating the idol’s body into the lane as a channel terminal. The “ticket” indexes a right to access this hybrid body of the lane-idol.
While AKB48 is not the first idol franchise to seize upon the profitability of affective contact, nor are they the only one, the success of their business model is noteworthy in its increasingly excessive scale. While their earlier akushukai were relatively small scale, over the years, these events have turned into massive spectacles. They now take place at impressive large-capacity venues like Makuhari Messe and Saitama Super Arena, requiring a large number of lanes to be installed. According to Akushukai Tomonokai, an online portal devoted to akushukai information, AKB48 (and its sister groups) hold more than forty contact events per year, and up to 20,000 fans participate per event, especially when events take place in the Tokyo metropolitan area. The idols’ phatic labor of dyadic contact happens against the background of the huge open space of the venue that demands additional layers of phatic labor, such as lane construction and lane monitoring.
It is in this context of the intensification of AKB48’s akushukai that the assault on Kawaei Rina occurred. According to some reports, the 2014 event in which the assault happened was smaller in scale, featuring forty-six other AKB members and attracting about 5,000 fans. Still, each individual idol had to manage the rather disproportionate idol-fan ratio of 1:100. If Kawaei’s body, like other idols, is coterminous with the lane, then the violence on her body is also violence on the channel. Kawaei’s injured body makes visible phatic risks—risks of violence and disorder inherent in the channel of contact.
In this vein, it is instructive to note that, again in the language of fandom, the expression sesshoku-chū refers to a particular type of pathologized fans (literally “contact-addict”). Often associated with qualities like “stickiness” (nenchaku), contact-addicts are interested only or primarily in the value of contact. This pathologization in fact puts into question the boundary of fan and faux-fan (or non- and antifan). Recall that Kawaei’s attacker was not her fan. Over and above the question of the authentic fan, the figure of the “sticky fan” indexes a systemic risk of the channel when the channel is overburdened. For, the pathologization of contact in large-scale akushukai is not reducible to individual psychology nor to dyadic interactional dynamism but is an effect of forces of the crowd that routinely threaten to exceed the channel’s capacity (see Fisch 2018).
The 2014 incident prompted the more rigorous phatic policing of this excess. In addition to increased security, strict rules regarding the terminal zone of contact started to be implemented. For example, fans are prohibited from bringing any object to the zone, giving an object to the idol, having the idol hold an object, speaking in a low voice or excessively, sitting down while handshaking, or touching the idol’s body except for the hand. The aim of these regulations is to reduce the burden on the channel of contact (the lane-idol hybrid) by making the flow of fans’ bodies as smooth as possible, as well as to achieve procedural equity. Congestion may cause chaos, and uneven distribution of contact time may be interpreted as unfair treatment of the “right to touch,” which is equally distributed per the price of a CD.
Phatic policing materializes as human labor as well: a type of worker collectively known as hagashi (peelers). Usually hired through temp agencies on a part-time basis, peelers take position within the contact zone, standing right behind the fan about to touch the idol. Their job is to announce the end of contact time: They are literally a phatic signal. After ten seconds—and they often carry a stopwatch—they will ask the fan to leave the zone. Sometimes this involves physical removal (“peeling”) of the fan’s body. While the fan-idol affective contact is achieved under strict logistical conditions, the peelers are excluded from this communion while also providing the necessary labor of facilitating it from behind the scenes.
But these efforts to keep the contact zone safe did not ultimately prevent Kawaei from leaving AKB48. Following the incident, she refused to participate in AKB48’s akushukai, citing emotional distress, but still managed to maintain fan connection through limited public appearances as well as “talk events” on a social networking platform called 755, a multiparty chat application. On September 20, 2014, she said she would not return to akushukai any time soon in response to fans’ questions about the possibility. But, in the course of online interaction, some participants insisted on the topic. One commented, in a rather condescending tone, “You got popular because of the handshake. If you stop participating in akushukai, you’ll perhaps lose your popularity.”
Fans of Kawaei Rina express disappointment with her decision not to participate in handshake events (akushukai).
Distressed even by mention of the topic, and in a preemptive effort to prevent it from ever coming up on her 755 platform, the next day Kawaei posted: “Hey guys, could you stop saying things like ‘Do akushukai’ here?” Though written in a casual, if not anxious, language, some took it as a dispiriting message of distance and started enthusiastically—“stickily”—criticizing her for the message they deemed uncharacteristic of an idol. This interaction escalated into an online flame war in which she found herself a blameworthy party. Just as in the 2014 incident, the “fan vs. nonfan” boundary became increasingly difficult to draw in this assemblage of online verbal assault as the negative characterization got reintroduced every time it was cited, even in those messages meant to defend her and criticize “bad” fans, which further fueled the flames. Soon after, Kawaei closed her 755 account, and about six months later, she announced her intention to leave the idol group and pursue a new career as an actor.
Kawaei Rina asks her fans to stop posting about akushukai.
Ironically, this online “assault” emerged from an effort to police unwanted contact, whereas the 2014 incident occurred precisely due to the lack of such an effort. But perhaps it is not simply an irony. Rather, Kawaei’s departure from AKB48 indicates a general systemic condition in the contemporary media ecology where physical, emotional, technical, and institutional connection is always haunted by the phatic risks of the channel.
The meaning of phatic communication is a function of historically emergent and culturally specific ideologies of communication. Malinowski, still couched in the late-Victorian “civilizational” idioms, may have seen in “primitive speech” a naturalized propensity for the social use of communication toward the ends of communion. But the desire for contact is far from being natural in its conditions, nor is it harmless in its consequences. It is constructed and manipulated through and through. Policing, monitoring, peeling, and other types of phatic labor, such as those briefly examined above, gain their efficacy as concrete tactical responses to the intensification of intimacy in the background of the larger historical transformation of value from content to contact in contemporary media culture.
This contemporary transformation has prompted a heterogeneous body of scholarship on topics such as platform (Steinberg 2019; Gillespie 2010), interface (Galloway 2012), infrastructure (Parks and Starosielski 2015; Larkin 2013), and atmosphere (Peters 2015; Roquet 2016). These lines of thinking resonate with an analysis of phaticity in bringing theoretical and methodological attention to the logistics and ideologies of connection and disconnection. As a general concept encompassing diverse genres, technologies, cultures, and historical contexts, phaticity offers a unique analytic metalanguage for synthesizing these ongoing explorations of contemporary media culture.
Jakobson’s notion of “function” has little to do with various forms of “functionalism.” It is better rephrased as “configuration.” He identifies six components in a communicative event: message, sender, addressee, referent, code, and channel. The capacity of the message to draw attention to each of these components affords multiple “configurations” (Einstellung) of the event: poetic (message indexing itself), emotive (message indexing sender), conative (message indexing addressee), referential (message indexing referent), metalingual (message indexing code), and phatic (message indexing channel). ↑
Zuckerman usefully distinguishes the Malinowski-inspired “communion sense” of phaticity (often naturalized as conducive to producing positive outcomes) from the “contact sense,” “a technical category meant to describe an orientation to contact generally, no matter the (dis)affiliative effects of contact” (2016, 296). ↑
For recent linguistic anthropological reconsiderations, see also Hales 2019; Ansell 2017; Handman 2017; Slotta 2015; Nozawa 2015; Kockelman 2010. ↑
For Japanese idol culture, see Aoyagi 2005, and Galbraith and Karlin 2012. For more detail on AKB48, see Galbraith 2012, and Galbraith and Karlin 2019. ↑
The AKB-style sesshoku strategy has in turn motivated a seemingly opposite trend, where the lack of physical contact/proximity is valorized. For example, consider relatively newer types of idols such as “virtual YouTubers” and zaitaku (stay-at-home) idols. See, e.g., Oricon News, “Hi-sesshoku shōhō no ‘Zaitaku Aidoru’ ga zōka,” April 14, 2018, https://www.oricon.co.jp/special/51007 (accessed September 1, 2019). ↑
Also bundled with these CDs are “general election” ballots. ↑
Handshaking tickets also recirculate through secondary markets like online auctions. ↑
Related expressions include tsunagari-chū (connection-addict) and ninchi-chū (recognition-addict). ↑
Fans share these regulations through online sites and through past experiences; see, e.g., Akushukai Tomonokai, https://48g.jp/prohibited (accessed September 1, 2019). ↑
In a practice known as matome-dashi (roughly “all-in”), an individual fan submits multiple tickets all at once to obtain longer contact time. Rumors abound about fans investing hundreds of tickets—in a well-quoted story, even a thousand—for a single idol. ↑
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