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How Does Animation Change our Concept of Life and What Kind of Ethics Does it Require?

A Conversation with Media Historian and Theorist Deborah Levitt

Public Seminar (PS): Deborah, in your recently published book The Animatic Apparatus. Animation, Vitality, and the Futures of the Image you claim that animation is the dominant medium of our time and propose the concept of the animatic apparatus as a dispositif, that is, as a kind of organizing mechanics for contemporary culture. Can you explain to us what exactly you mean by the animatic apparatus and why you think it is a suitable concept to capture the current condition?

Deborah Levitt (DL): That’s a great question. Thank you.

I wrote the book’s chapters over quite a long period time, but I did in fact write the conclusion at the very end of the process. It was January of 2017. Like so many people I was struggling with the shock of Trump’s election and inauguration. And I really was one of those people who was just completely bowled over. I can’t claim to have had any premonition of Trump’s victory and everything that has accompanied it at all.

But at that time I also realized that I’d been writing a pre-history of post-truth all along, not one framed in relation to political speech, but rather by an analysis of transformations in the status of the image. One very important feature of the contemporary world is that the 20th century’s reality function has given way to something new in the 21st, something that is referred to as simulation or the hyperreal — or the post-truth condition. When I say the reality function of the 20th century, rather than just reality per se, it’s because I’m not at all convinced that there was a “real” reality that has since disappeared, or been simulated. Rather, through the twentieth century a powerful cultural operation held the features of a common world in place through making and sustaining distinctions between true and false, realistic and fantastic, material and ideal, etc. Photography and film — and the particular combination of technical features and cultural ideologies that claimed for them a privileged relation to a real world — were key components of this cultural infrastructure. But all the while, and this is in fact part of a much longer history, the animatic apparatus was at work.

The term animatic apparatus refers of course to animated media, and offers a contrast to what in film theory has been called the cinematic apparatus. And one of my main claims in the book — though perhaps this has already become merely a “fact” — is that animation, broadly conceived to include computer generated images (CGI) and simulations of all kinds — is the dominant media form of the twenty-first century. But the animatic apparatus doesn’t refer exclusively to animation as a media form; it refers to the not at all coincidental cultural co-ascendance of animation, synthetic biology, and attendant developments in biopolitics. That is, the animatic apparatus names the shared structure, and infrastructure, that links the hybrid live-action/CGI characters of Avatar or the most recent entries in the Planet of the Apes franchise (2011, 2014, 2017) to Dolly the sheep, Dupont’s OncoMouse™, or the AquAdvantage® salmon now available in Canadian supermarkets, as well as to the global political production of lives and labor that enable them.

If, for example, Baudrillard’s conception of simulation (despite his protestations) always conjures a real that has disappeared, and discourses around post-truth most often focus on what has been lost, the animatic apparatus looks at the same phenomena through the lens of production rather than critique: What forms of life and modes of experience are produced in a contemporary dispositif so clearly in the service of capitalist production? How can we understand these new phenomena? Just to be very clear, I don’t adopt this approach because it’s all good and therefore critique is unnecessary, but rather because I don’t think critique is working and I’m looking for and experimenting with other ways to engage the urgent issues that we face today.

PS: One of the major characteristics of animation is that it creates ever-changing new forms of life and modes of vitality. As a result, you claim that animation deconstructs ontology as such and propose an-ontology as a term to approach questions of life and vitality in the 21st century. How did you arrive at this conclusion and what exactly do you mean by an-ontology?

DL: I should say first that my own conceptualization has a lot in common with ways of thinking ontology that appear in Deleuze’s and more recently Agamben’s engagement with Spinoza, as well as in Whitehead. Though of course there are significant differences between each of these three paradigms, what they share is a focus on how events or occasions come into being.

I framed these issues of emergence and onto-genesis as a shift from a mid-late twentieth-century crisis in ontology to the twenty first century’s an-ontological conditions because the language highlights both the characteristics of the transformation I’m mapping and the urgency of finding new ways to address novel forms. I see this as a tactic for confronting a changed world in a more effective adequate way. In particular for an-ontology, some of the textbook ontological distinctions are animate and inanimate, sensate and insensate, material and immaterial, natural and artificial, etc. I use the concept of an-ontology to address what I see as one of the most demanding features of the contemporary: more and more happens that nullifies the definitional force of these categories, and this is the case from the struggle to determine boundaries between life and death in medical and legal discourses, to the emergence of a synthetic biology that focuses on manipulating biotic and computational bits and bytes to create new forms or modes of life (gene editing is an example that has been in the spotlight recently) to the emergence of CGI “digital influencers,” like Lil’ Miquela, who not only advertise particular brands but support social and political movements through their interactions with their followers on Instagram.

PS: In your book, you provide many intriguing examples of how different forms of animation and simulation confuse our conventional understanding of the relationship between reality, the body, life and images. Could you give us a short account of your favorite example from the book and explain to us why you think it is emblematic of the age of the animatic apparatus?

DL: If I’m going to go into the book’s archive, I need to mention Mamoru Oshii’s 2004 anime film, Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2, at the very start. This was the single most important text for me in writing the book. There are a few chapters devoted to it, but even beyond this my engagement with the film informs the whole project. As Steven Shaviro suggests, aesthetics are in advance of theory in expressing the time in which we live, which can otherwise be so opaque to us. But because it was so catalytic for my thinking in The Animatic Apparatus, I can’t turn it into an example! And, in fact, no single example emblematizes the whole because I’m working to sketch the apparatus that conditions cultural production today, and each example actualizes the apparatus in different ways. The part of the book I struggled with the most was the section about the TLC reality series, I am Jazz, which chronicles the life and transition of transgender teen, Jazz Jennings. I wish I could condense that here but I can’t; it still feels very unresolved.

A fun example to discuss is Hatsune Miku. She is most familiar to North American audiences as a Japanese hologrammatic pop star who plays concerts with live musicians and to large live audiences, despite the fact that she’s not “real.” She appeared on David Letterman in 2008 and I don’t think he knew quite what to do with her. Her story is much more complicated, and interesting, than the description above allows however.

She began her life as a vocaloid software issued by Crypton Future Media in 2007, that is, as a kind of databank of vocal sounds typically marketed to professional music producers to create synthetic vocal tracks. Miku was the first vocaloid to appear with an image attached. Rendered by the well-known illustrator Kei Garo, she’s a 5 foot two inch, ninety-three pound, sixteen year old with long turquoise pigtails. She is a conventional anime-style girl android, with large eyes, tiny mouth and nose, long legs and a short skirt.

Miku triggered an immediate effect: she became the subject of massively collaborative fan produced videos, videos whose many creators very likely never met in person but nonetheless devoted their collective energies and talents to creating new incarnations of and new songs for Miku. Just to give a sense of scale, by nine months after her release in 2007, over 36,000 Miku videos were shared on Nico Nico Douga (the Japanese Youtube). A YouTube search for “Hatsune Miku” I did in early 2017 returned over 3,640,000 results. In her “live” performances, Miku performs fan produced songs. There are many commercial Miku products as well, including a number of video games and a VR app called Sleep Together which allows a user to sleep with Hatsune Miku, as long as he is willing to wear an Oculus Rift HMD to bed, that is. What interests me in this occasion of the animatic apparatus is the kind of life Miku has. My discussion focuses on what I call “interoperative vitality affects” as the kind of affective exchanges that Miku enables, generates, and sustains. All forms of life are dependent on the distributed agency performed in interoperative vitality, but Miku’s life crystallizes what this mean in terms of thinking outside of some of the conventional boundaries between living and inert, real and unreal.

PS: In the final chapter of your book you write “because in a hypothetical dimension everything is possible in animation, animation always tells a story about constraints, about the pressures exerted both by materials and by representational conventions.” Could you expand on this a little bit further for us?

DL: I discuss this a few times! I wanted to be very clear that the animatic apparatus’s forms of life are neither sui generis and unlimited, nor without important political ramifications. I can describe the operation most precisely in relation to moving image animation which is generated through a set of technical conditions of possibility that enable all sorts of things to emerge, but not anything whatsoever. Likewise, even a line or point (not to mention different conventions of representation) are not sui generis because they emerge from and enter into the space of a particular cultural “image repertoire.”

Many of examples I use are ambivalent in the sense that the phenomena I describe are bringing new possibilities into our worlds, but they’re also riddled with the fraught issues around gender, race, and geopolitics that are operative everywhere. As media theorist Tom Lamarre put it during a panel at the Society for Animation Studies conference, the motivation behind my work — and that of many others — is to think what kind of gestures might bring a new ethics into being? That is, how can we help to create a new transcendental-empirical field — an activist field, perhaps — that can generate more justice?

PS: In the conclusion of your book, which can be read here, you ask the question what kind of an ethics the an-ontological condition of animation requires. Could you summarize for us why you think this is an important question and which answer you arrived at?

DL: So many of our frameworks for thinking about ethics involve precisely the kinds of ontological limits that no longer function in the worlds of the animatic apparatus, at least not in the same ways: Human or non-human? Living or dead? Animate or inanimate? Sentient or non-sentient? Organic body or image body? This seems a real conundrum for imagining how ethical thought might function today, and what kind of ethics might be called for to engage the new circumstances in which we find ourselves. To return to the questions around post-truth I discussed earlier, I am not sure given the massive changes in our media environment within which the phenomena of post-truth have emerged that we can “return” to the truth-function of an earlier historical moment. At the same time, I don’t want to make the kind of accelerationist argument that might suggest that pushing this condition as far as it can go it will magically tip us into a better world. I think the most pressing issue today — and one that demands thinking a mediology of ethics, and vice versa — is how to engage this new terrain. By “mediology” I mean a study of the media technologies and logistics that enable ideas and practices to emerge and to change.

I don’t think that I solve the problem in The Animatic Apparatus. I would say that the book sets up the terms of the problematic, and proposes an experimental research program which I continue to work on now. I suggest that developing an ethical approach centered on the question “how?,” as a question that is not determined by ontological limits but on processes and modes of the formation of events and occasions, may point the way forward.

PS: After the publication of the book, what projects are you currently working on or imagining for the future?

DL: In The Animatic Apparatus I focused on describing our an-ontological situation and suggesting a way out of the kind of ethical impasses it’s generated through the potentials opened by the question how?, where ethics doesn’t ask about what something is, or what its limits are, but rather about how about the conditions and process for its emergence and transformation. In the conclusion I begin to think more specifically, following Francisco Varela, about perception as a feature of this process. As he describes it, while we live in environments, worlds emerge through the “surplus of signification” produced as our perceptual systems encounter our environments. Something like a “cognitive agent” is the result of this surplus signification, that is, of our representation of a world to ourselves.

Animation-philosophy has a particularly useful way of thinking worlds. There is no such thing as “the world” in animation. A particular work might conceptualize and represent “the world,” but it isn’t equivalent to it. As Suzanne Buchan has shown, there is no animated world — only animated worlds. A world emerges in animated media, as in the medium that human being is, at the interface between perception and environment and through the surplus of signification, or the model or rendering, produced here. We have the structural limits and affordances of the material media apparatus or the human sensorium, the variety of environments they encounter, the transformations effected at the interface, and the worlds or “second natures” that emerge there.

My current project (whose working title is Rendering Worlds: Sensation, Interface, Environment) focuses on this intersection. We find ourselves today on terrain where the relationship of the human to the perceptible surround is significantly changed. The term “Anthropocene” names both the effect the human species has had on ecological forces and also our inability to control or manage them. Whether or not the sensors with which we monitor climate are precise or enable adequate predictive models, we now know we are under their sway rather than vice versa. On top of this — or perhaps more precisely, below it — an enormous amount of our daily activity and lived experience is subtended by algorithmic, datalogical processes inaccessible to direct perception. In between, the human being is caught buffeted, and transformed by this vast field of macro and micrological forces. But this isn’t the end of the story. Our environments sense us in unprecedented ways: We’re tracked online and on the streets by corporate and governmental entities; we jump at the exposures offered by Facebook and Instagram. And with the emergence of new fields of biometrics and affective computing, like emotion recognition, it’s not only our locations and identities that are made visible, but also bodily and affective states that may be inaccessible to us as “cognitive agents.” One of the most urgent conversations in media studies today is concerned with the problems generated by the shifting relationships to sense triggered by the affective and datalogical turns, to use Patricia Clough’s terms, and by the social and political ramifications of these.

In anthropology, the concept of worlds has taken on a new sense of theoretical and political urgency as thinkers such as Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro call for engaging the many ontological worlds of indigenous peoples, as well as the worlds and forces of nonhumans. In Rendering Worlds, I argue that animation-philosophy, with an emergent and environmentally interdependent account of sensation and the production of worlds, can help us both to think about the macro and micrological dimensions of these sub-perceptual conditions and to intervene in them through new understandings and practices of world making. Thinking with a wide range of interlocutors from media theory, cognitive science, neuroscience, Buddhist studies, and anthropology I consider how worlds are rendered in post-cinema and through affective computing — and particularly in VR where the sensing and tracking of the human body is the very substance of the medium itself.

Deborah Levitt, a media historian and theorist, is an Assistant Professor of Culture and Media Studies at The New School. She is the author of The Animatic Apparatus (Zero Books, 2018). You can find an excerpt from her book as well as her essay, “Five Theses on Virtual Reality,” here on Public Seminar.

Bettine Josties is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the New School for Social Research. Working at social theory’s points of intersection with media theory, affect theory, and queer theory, her research focuses on developing interdisciplinary tools for analyzing and challenging contemporary relations of power and forms of governance.

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