By Rosemary Overell
Logging on to Twitter late last week, a series of cryptic posts were summoned by my scrolling finger – mostly anchored in the hashtag #AcademicChatter Knowing references were being made to ‘that article,’ ‘this article,’ and, finally, simply ‘the article’ by academics, particularly in the humanities and social sciences field. It seemed as though many #Academics had read the article; almost none named it (or its author) and still others, desperate to read that article, circulated it, requested it, accessed but were refused it. In other tweets, this article became an ‘it’:
“… I’ve heard so much abt it but need to see it for myself” (@TwitterUser)
“… I’m already repulsed by it but I have to know” (@TwitterUser2)
The article – (what an interesting word!) an object; a little bit of some-thing …
The article in question, published in Qualitative Research, is titled: ‘I am not alone – we are all alone: Using masturbation as an ethnographic method in research on shota subculture in Japan’. The author, Karl Andersson, is a PhD student from the University of Manchester. He offers “an experimental method of masturbating” as a means for participant-observation of ‘shotacon’ Japanese comic book fans. Andersson describes in detail his “ritual” masturbation, undertaken whilst reading shota. This article might rank as little more than ‘clickbait,’ confirming the view held by many critics of contemporary university education: that the humanities and social sciences are, at best, self-indulgent and, at worst, obscene (or, in fact, something worse altogether). The repulsion, disgust, and, I would venture, desire to know more, regarded less his method (though there was that too) than the particularity of Andersson’s own ritualized article, or object. Shotacon are pornographic comics depicting pre-pubescent boys. Further, the author’s background proved dubious. Andersson had previously edited Destroyer Magazine featuring erotic photography of boys.
Porn studies is a legitimate field in the university – as the author notes. Since at least the 1980s, scholars have grappled with pornography from a feminist perspective (as either oppressive or liberating); as a formal ‘genre’ of film; and, of course, as both cause and effect of broader social decay and immorality. What all these approaches share, however, is at least a pretension of distance from their object. Feminists may look at representations of porn in print or online in terms of patriarchal ideology; formalists categorise cumshots as evidence of this or that sub-genre; and the media effects folk do surveys of audience members to track ‘scientific’ outcomes of porn consumption.
Ideology, style, data – these come between the body writing research and the object. These sites are discursive. I mean that they are discursive in the sense that the way porn is written through academic research produces meaning – but also that this discourse depends on a certain distance, a little nick, or cut, between the object and the one confronting it, which is requisite for the social. It is notable how the #Chatter, no matter how outraged or titillated (or titillated at the outrage) Tweeters were, there was a deliberate, repeated distancing from their object of scorn – the article, the author. Here we have not-naming – a curious call without direct interpellation …
Perhaps part of the repulsion folks experience upon reading this article is that the author is too close to his object. After all, even Andersson’s choice of title (‘I am not alone – we are all alone’) indicates an apparent refusal of distance, in Lacanian terms, what is referred to as the one all alone. Masturbation, too, of course, is usually a solo pursuit. I will return to this in due course.
There are a few threads here I want to untangle. I choose the metaphor of a mess of tangled thread deliberately, due to Andersson’s claim that his approach is part of ‘messy’ ethnographic methodologies. In response to the empiricism and rationalism of ‘traditional’ ethnographic fieldwork, academics in anthropology, sociology, and geography drew on work in feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory to foreground the ‘messiness’ of research which requires humans to study ‘other’ humans. Often positioned as ‘after’ or ‘post-’ method, such work makes a purposeful choice to emphasise contradiction, affect, and the impossibility of ‘objective’, positivist research.
That word again! Object!
A little article parcelled out from the social, all straight lines and clear boundaries.
What messy methods teach us is that a little object is always cut off or out of something or, in the case of ethnography, more aptly some-body else. Messy ethnographers draw attention to how, when researchers turn the human object of their research into a bounded transcendent ‘thing’ for which a researcher can wholly, and empirically, account, and wholly, and rationally, understand, the researcher engages in a fantasy that one can wholly know the other. Worse, when such ethnography is auto-ethnography (as the author here also claims), the researcher may engage in the same fantasy about themself. There is an ethics at stake here, which is why, perhaps,, one of the repeated cries from #AcademicChatter about Andersson’s article was: ‘how did this get through the ethics process at Manchester Uni?’ To place the ethical as a position which, yes, again, can be wholly accounted – in this case by University-led forms, procedure and empanelled consideration – is misplaced. The author’s ‘method’ – solo – alone – rejects any understanding of the object – his object – as a thing of procedure, let alone consideration.
No – what Andersson’s method shows in full obscenity is an inversion of the fantasy of objectivity, but one which – and this is crucial – regards none of the messy contingency of all research, messy or neat, declared ‘messy methods’, or not. The author offers a fantasy that one has direct access to their object of study – in ethnography, this object is the subject, either ‘others’ or the self. Such direct access is what Andersson offers as his alleged impetus for taking up ‘masturbation as method’. He writes that he had “hit a wall” with standard ethnographic methods, particularly with in-depth interviews with other shotacon fans. His frustration at the cut of discourse – the wall of the words of his interviewees – moves him into a space where he simply ‘knows better’ from his own experience as a shotacon fan. He moves auto-ethnography into its obscene extreme. After all, he describes the thrill of collapsing into his object as pure joy: “a dopamine rush of pure satisfaction”. Andersson notes that his method, in doing what is expected of all shotacon fans leads to a “feeling of oneness” with other fans.
Let’s return to the title of the piece, “I am not alone – we are all alone: Using masturbation as an ethnographic method in research on shota subculture in Japan”. In a way, the clause about masturbation is a canard. The more perilous proposition here is in this first statement. In Seminar XIX Lacannotes we are “one-all-alone,” indeed that we are alone in our auto-erotic jouissance. Andersson, indeed, up against a wall as he is, shows us this. However, an ethics of ethnography (an ethics beyond the check boxes of university forms) requires a cut, a mark, constitutive of discourse as a social bond. The fatal misapprehension of the article (it too, more than most, bears the abject mark of its author!) and its author, is that there is some other way through this one-all-alone-ness than that of discourse – even of the divided subject, or through the social bond with the other. Rather, Andersson’s proposal – embodied, quite literally, in his method – that a communality can be built on a fantasy of direct access to the other – whomever that may be – is impossible.
Please note, I am not advocating here for a revival of scientistic objectivism. Contrary to online spaces – and, perhaps, more adherent with the messiness which mustered all this – discourse is cut, but never dry. It requires an object left over: bodily, extimate, and abject. What is at question in all research, in the ethics which exceeds paperwork (another dry, neat article), to consider whose bodies reside in that abjected position.
We must be careful, as qualitative researchers, not to fall for the seduction of this fantasy of direct access to any thing or, indeed, any body.
 One academic tweeted: “Metrics mania pushes academic publication into the trolling / clickbait direction. It’s no coincidence that the social media ecosystem has been lighting this article up. Down the road some bureaucratic system is going to register this as a ‘most read’ article” (@MarkAndrejevic). He was completely right. The article swiftly rose to most read and most downloaded on the journal’s website. The
 See particularly John Law’s After Method: Mess in Social Science Research (Routledge 2004).