In Search of an Ethics for the Age of Animation
An Excerpt from Media Historian and Theorist Deborah Levitt’s Latest Book
In her recently published book The Animatic Apparatus. Animation, Vitality, and the Futures of the Image media historian and theorist Deborah Levitt claims that animation is the dominant medium of our time and proposes the concept of the animatic apparatus as an organizing mechanics for contemporary culture. In the following excerpt from her book, she discusses what kind of an ethics the age of the animatic apparatus, which profoundly affects our conventional idea of life and the relation between the body and the image, requires and what kind of risks and possibilities an ethics corresponding to the condition of animation entails.
I’ve argued throughout this book that in the animatic apparatus body and image interpenetrate in remarkable ways. My objective in the previous chapter was to bring home the enormous impact this has had on our contemporary life worlds. Jazz Jennings’ coming out is as much about its media staging and consumption as it is about the more intimate practices of taking hormones or shopping for clothes. Hatsune Miku’s status as a virtual being seems only to enhance her appeal — and her affective and libidinal force — to the fans who use the Sleep Together App. It is as impossible to establish boundaries here between intimate spaces and media spaces as it is to establish where images end and bodies begin, where truth or the real might reside, or on what side of this vestigial division between spectator and screen we find “life.”
The crucial question with which I’ve had to contend in thinking the animatic apparatus is how to think an ethics that could function in a space in which traditional conceptions of reality, ground, and limit have dissolved. That is, if ethics has been thought in terms of finitude, the particular ontology of human being, and being toward death, and if the animatic apparatus dissolves these fundamental limiting, ontological denominations, where does this scenario open onto its own immanent critique, its own positive possibility? There seem to me to be two possible directions here, back toward ontology, limit, and the real — or further into the virtualization of life. In the space opened by the latter, there can still be ethical thought but, as I’ve suggested, it would have to be configured not around ontological commitments and their questions of who? and what? but rather around the embrace of the one an-ontological determinant: how?
How-Ethics 1: Agamben’s Gesture
Giorgio Agamben points us toward a manner of thinking about the question “how?” in its relation both to ethics and to the “positive possibility” of what he calls, following Guy Debord, the society of the spectacle. This is one part of his larger project to imagine a non-statist, non-teleological, non-identitarian politics. How might we conceive, he asks, a community without a basis in the identity of its members, a belonging without an ontological foundation or reference, an an-ontological community, politics, and ethics?
I’ll juxtapose two passages from neighboring essays from The Coming Community. The opening of “Ethics” reads:
The fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must realize. This is the only reason why something like an ethics can exist, because it is clear that if humans were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible — there would only be tasks to be done (Agamben 1993, 43).
The end of the essay that follows it, “Dim Stockings,” concludes:
To appropriate the historic transformations of human nature that capitalism wants to limit to the spectacle, to link together image and body in a space where they can no longer be separated, and thus to forge the whatever body whose physis is resemblance — this is the good that humans must now learn to wrest from commodities in their decline. Advertising and pornography, which escort the commodity to the grave like hired mourners, are the unknowing midwives of this new body of humanity (50).
In the first passage above, Agamben asserts that ethics is made possible, is opened, by humans’ lack of any essence or destiny. If humans had an essence or destiny, he explains, it would only be a matter of figuring out what tasks need to be done in order to accomplish it, and there would be no need for ethical questioning or, as Agamben has it, ethical experience, at all. The flip side of this formulation is also true for Agamben: Where humans perceive their experience in terms of a particular biological destiny or spiritual vocation, the sphere of ethics is occluded.
Agamben conceives his definition of ethics, as I’ve suggested, in relation to the “positive possibility” of the society of the spectacle. The spectacle, Agamben writes, “disarticulates and empties, all over the planet, traditions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities” (Agamben 2000, 85). That is, it has accomplished the destruction of traditional notions of biological destiny, spiritual vocation, cultural identity, individual biography, theological destiny, etc. The positive possibility of the society of the spectacle lies in the manner in which its very destructions may reveal the domain of ethics — as the default of any particular destiny or identity for human being and the corollary openness of its potentiality.
The crucial point for us here, however, is that in the conclusion to “Dim Stockings” quoted above, Agamben in fact calls for the very scenario that we’ve already seen realized in the space of the animatic apparatus: that is, “to link together image and body in a space where they can no longer be separated” (Agamben 2000, 50). From the fantastic dimension of the animatic body as presented in the Esurance ad campaign to its more material versions in the plastic surgeries of Heidi Montag or the multi-modal transformations of the Real-Life Barbie, and from the new biotechnological processes Franklin and Lock describe to the cinematic-animatic compositings that produce the digital bodies of Lord of the Rings, Avatar, etc., the hallmark of these animatic bodies is that they “link together image and body in a space where they can no longer be separated.”
In the passage quoted from “Dim Stockings” Agamben also refers to the body he summons as “a whatever body,” and he explains it — in reference to both the quodlibet of Scholastic philosophy and the photographic lens — as “being such that it always matters.” The whatever body is a kind of singularity inseparable from all of its own predicates, but unrelated to any model — except by a “resemblance without archetype” (48). It no longer maintains a reference to a theological origin or to any model, except through the “Idea” of resemblance, a resemblance without actual substance. The “whatever body,” with all of its determinate indeterminacy, remains static in its insistence on the maintenance of the logic of resemblance — as well as in its insistence on the absolute qualification of being. It’s hard to imagine that “the new body of humanity,” given the field of forces from which it is emerging, could be so definitely in possession of its attributes.
It seems more apt to imagine them as “however bodies,” that is, in terms of their modes of production and transformation and the forms and modes of life and experience these emergent and continually emerging bodies produce. And, finally, whether they are, as Oshii would have it — sounding quite a bit like the Spinozist Deleuze or the Guattari of Chaosmosis — “good for” other bodies. What I want to retain from Agamben’s formulations here is the manner in which we may articulate the particular conception of ethics he develops as the default of essence, vocation, and telos — and its corollary potentiality — with the contemporary phase of what Agamben calls (after Debord, of course) the society of the spectacle and what I’m calling the animatic apparatus. If it is the case that ethics — like the however bodies of the animatic apparatus — don’t refer to a biological or theological ground or telos, then that opens a space to consider their forms of production and metamorphosis along new lines, that is, in relation to the how? of their unfolding. Agamben’s conception of gesture offers a useful starting point for the development of how-ethics.
Gesture, for Agamben, is what takes place when all definitive locations — life and art, text and execution, reality and virtuality, power and act, personal biography and impersonal event — are suspended. In this opening, what appears — or plays — is gesture. According to Agamben, gesture is a special kind of action, neither a means nor an end. He distinguishes it from Aristotle’s conceptions of a making that would produce something (from or by means of itself), and an action that would enact something (existing before it). Gesture pertains to a third kind of action that Agamben, following Varro, characterizes as carrying, enduring, supporting. It is “pure praxis” freed from any pre-existing determination (such as life or art) and freed of any telos, including any aesthetic one (such as art for art’s sake). The realm of ethics, for Agamben, is the sphere of gesture: that is, it is that realm in which the third kind of action — as means without end — unfolds.
Agamben has a kind of formula for gesture that unifies its otherwise diverse sites of appearance: “The gesture”, he writes, “is the exhibition of a mediality, it is the process of making a means visible as such” (Agamben 2000, 58). This formula holds, to cite Agamben’s own examples, for both the porn star whose gaze at the camera reveals that her exhibition takes precedence over her engagement with her partner, and for the mime who, estranging gestures from their normal ends, exhibits them in their pure mediality — that is, shows them in their pure being-in-a-medium. The issue becomes here, then, what does this revelation of mediality make possible? What kinds of ethical action can emerge from its an-ontological space?
I want to turn, finally, to the suggestions Francisco Varela offers in Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. Varela’s work moves us into new territory. This makes it both potentially generative, even necessary, but also difficult to approach. Varela, who died in 2001, was a fascinating and unusual thinker. A biologist and cognitive scientist, he’s best known for developing the concept of autopoiesis with his mentor and colleague, Humberto Maturana, and for his work on embodied cognition. In “Ethical Know-How,” he brings together cognitive science and what he calls “Eastern wisdom traditions,” particularly Buddhism, to advance a new paradigm.4 While his direct intention was not to relate the ethical discourse he was developing to the media sphere and its operations, that is, to what I’m conceiving as the animatic apparatus, its relevance to this domain becomes very clear in the examples he uses to describe his approach to ethics, cognition, and action.
How-ethics emerges from virtuality. It demands, Varela argues, that we acknowledge our “selves” as virtual, as always coming into and passing out of “being” via our “structural couplings” with the environment. Varela distinguishes between what he calls “know-what” and “know-how” (Varela 1992). The former approach to ethics is based on the conception that ethical behavior emerges from conscious, deliberative, decision-making processes. In contrast, Varela asserts that most ethical action emerges from ethical know-how as immediate, spontaneous, and in fact independent of the deliberations of a conscious self.
This claim issues from his concept of embodied cognition — the notion that cognition arises through a subject’s sensorimotor actions in the world, and is thus dictated by its form of embodiment and the kinds of sensations it affords. In Varela’s sense, then, cognition is not identical to consciousness and does not require it. Consciousness is a kind of epiphenomenon of numerous distributed processes emerging from sensorimotor interactions with an environment. What’s crucial for us to understand from Varela’s formulation here is that environment, for Varela, is not the same as world. We live in both, but in different ways. “On the one hand, a body interacts with its environment in a straightforward way. These interactions are of the nature of macrophyical performance –sensory transductions, mechanical performance, and so on — nothing surprising about them. However, this coupling is possible only if the encounters are embraced from the perspective of the system itself. This embrace requires the elaboration of a surplus signification based on this perspective; it is the origin of the cognitive agent’s world” (55-6).
This surplus signification is the threshold between sensation, as physical interactions between organism and environment, and sense as world-making, or, to use different terms, as embodying these sensory and mechanical performances in an image schema. The organism’s environment may be given, but its world emerges through the manner in which it signifies this environment to itself based on the potentials and constraints offered by the specificities of its particular nervous system and its interactions. Varela describes this process with the term, enaction. Alberto Toscano offers a helpful definition of enaction as “the process whereby a world is brought forth by the interaction or structural coupling between an embodied agent and its medium or environment” and “also the study of the manner in which a subject of perception creatively matches its actions to the requirements of its situation.”
Varela’s narrative highlights just how easily new worlds emerge through contacts with new environments, and that the ontological status of these environments (as “real” or “virtual”) doesn’t determine our ability to “inhabit” them. We encounter new environments and can quickly accommodate ourselves to their coordinates, not through conscious deliberations but through our sensorimotor couplings and, then, through our capacity to signify and narrativize them.
With each new world a new self also emerges; this self is thus not inherent or abiding, but what Varela calls a kind of “virtual interface,” “a nonsubstantial self that acts as if it were present” (61), the self as an emergent narrative of emergent worlds. Drawing connections between cognitive science and Eastern philosophical traditions, Varela suggests that “ethical know-how is the progressive, firsthand acquaintance with the virtuality of self ” (63). For Varela, inspired here particularly by Buddhist anti-foundationalism, training in disciplines that cultivate this acquaintance is the route to spontaneous, non-intentional ethical action.
Worldmaking is, of course, what animation does. Because it doesn’t begin with a “real” world, this is its fundamental activity. Today’s culture of animatic simulations and simulacra brings forth new worlds and new forms of life. As I’ve argued, this is its distinctive feature. While worldmaking has of course always been a feature of living systems, as Varela asserts, and while all art, too, creates new worlds, the dissolution of the cinematic regime’s logic of representation and reality, coupled with the new technical affordances of simulation, amplify these potentials. What we learn from Varela — as, perhaps, from neuromarketing — is that these processes are much more situated and much less conscious than we might like to believe.
An-ontological ethics cannot be elaborated as a set of prescriptions; first, because it admits the openness and unpredictability of emergent forms, and second, because it involves affective interoperativity and the kind of non-conscious, spontaneous ethical know-how Varela describes. It’s thus perhaps easier to describe why we need it, and more difficult to describe how it might look in action, but I’d nonetheless like to offer what I hope will provide a beginning, a jumping off point for future inquiry.
For contemporary subjects, life in the animatic apparatus provides a 24/7 tutorial on the virtuality of the selves, forms of life, and worlds we are constantly producing, reproducing, and transforming. From the worldmaking of digital blockbusters, and the simulations and simulacra of gaming and VR to the animation of digital avatars on Facebook or Instagram, we can produce and inhabit many worlds. We can think of this as an acceleration or intensification, via the affordances and productions of animatic media, of our movement through what Varela calls microidentities and microworlds, that is, the kinds of shifting selves and worlds opened by sensory stimuli, thoughts, images, moods.
I’ve suggested the only way to think ethics outside of ontology is through attending to the how — the processes through which affects, worlds, selves, forms of life emerge. It might seem more logical to ask us to attend to the what, that is, what kinds of worlds and forms of life are being produced. The problem with this question is that we know from the outset that we can’t answer it. As worlds and forms of life are co-constitutive and emergent, we can’t know in advance exactly what form of life a world will produce and vice versa. What we have to work with is the process of generation, and what we value in it.
The starting point for an-ontological ethics, or how-ethics, is that we maintain and even accelerate this openness, even where we would like to change some of the particular coordinates it has generated. In Varela’s formulation, it is the hinges or gaps between microworlds and identities that allow us to see and attend to virtuality as well as to create new worlds. We want to intensify rather than program out these gaps, to value the experiences of the spaces in-between — as well as the kind of frictions, push-back, and even irritations that are generated there. This of course runs against the grain of the contemporary media sphere’s aspirations to produce experiences of seamlessness, that is, sensations of smooth, regular, temporally and spatially uninterrupted movement, in favor of a kind of perceptual training in different forms of movement as well as in cognitive dissonance and disruption. This is not at all to say that ease, pleasure, and enjoyment aren’t desirable here, they are, but rather that there are other pleasures to be generated than in seamlessness or frictionlessness, on one side, and the excitations of the techno-organic pleasure centers stimulated — and produced — by the “pharmacopornographic” dynamics of the culture industries on the other.
The virtuality of self leads us to think about the production of selves/subjects/figures as always in relation to the production of worlds. These worlds would include both what we conventionally call other living beings and their environments. Because worlds are perceiver-dependent, that is, generated through the interactions (structural couplings) between our nervous systems and our environments, how-ethics encourages us to take the specificities of our (post)human, nature-cultural, perceptual systems seriously. This is not at all to regard them as autonomous centers of will or intention but, on the contrary, to perceive them as precisely what connects us to our environment and allows us to produce the signification, image schemas, and narratives that become our human world. A world which, in our own era especially, profoundly affects the environment of all beings, and thus their worlds, as well. In contrast to determining that we want an emergent world to manifest as such-and-such a scenario, we might frame the how-ethic of this as: How can we create enlivening affects and effects in the world?
There’s an opportunity in this an-ontological space to experiment with vitality affects and forms of life that expand our attention and care beyond narrow spheres of identity or belonging. But being able to do so depends on our willingness to embrace virtuality and its creative responsibilities for worldmaking.
This excerpt has been taken from The Animatic Apparatus: Animation, Vitality and the Futures of the Image. Published by Zero Books in 2018. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
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 interview on her latest book as well as her essay, “Five Theses on Virtual Reality,” here on Public Seminar.