[-empyre-] visualization as the new language of theory

Thomas LaMarre, Prof. thomas.lamarre at mcgill.ca
Sat Feb 6 02:00:18 EST 2010

Another great discussion that I am eager to join.  And incidentally many thanks for the Hai Ren reference - excellent essay.

I've been thinking a lot about animation and neoliberalism, because in the context of my research, I have to deal with public policy, government planning, and activism related to subcultures, so-called otaku cultures, many centred on animations.

It is clear that animation cannot be treated in isolation from questions about 'rationalization' - or instrumentalization, if you will.  I have found Foucault's work really bracing and stimulating on this question.

In his later work, in the seminars on biopolitics etc, Foucault continues with his critique of the massive Rationalization thesis that ignores the specific operations of fields of rationality.  In the seminars he even has a pretty heated critique of the notion of mass culture and cultural industries (Frankfort school and Debord).  I tend to agree with him that we don't understand how power works or is exercised if we simply fold all fields of rationality, of the exercise of power, into an overarching massive Rationalization, Modernization or Globalization.  In fact, it is here that Foucault more resolutely jettisons his earlier tendency to speak of epistemes, for epochal thinking tends to totalize the conceptualization of power.

This is also where Foucault begins his critique of neoliberalism, which he contrasts with sovereign power (acting on the imaginary or subjectivity), disciplinary power (acting to individualize bodies by segregations and divisions) and security or biopolitics (acting on the real).  Neoliberalism belongs to the latter for him.

His approach is interesting for animation studies, because, as the Hai Ren essay shows, animation studies will confront neoliberalism at the site of fandom.  And Foucault demonstrates that neoliberalism acts on the real by eliminating the divide between producer and consumer, in favor of a generalized and flexible productivity (there is no consumption per se, and everything is articulated around one's human capital).  Power then is exercised on the multiplicity at the level of populations, security and risk.

This is what I see happening around myriad animation-related subcultures (associated with Japan but transnational): government planning sees in subcultures a new business model and site of governmentality, and because subculture activities associated with animation (say, cosplay) fold into work (maid cafés are a salient instance), you also see segments of labour activism and social movements coalescing around subcultures (many cite Foucault on biopolitics).  Similar things happen with fansubs and scanlation (incidentally the largest volume of translation in the history of world, being done by animation and manga fans), with respect to their sites of contestation.

In other words, at this level, as Foucault reminds us, you'll see how power operates, if you look at how and where it is contested.

This strikes me as an inspiring approach for a more politically engaged critique of animation that does simply see animation as somehow inherently instrumentalizing in its effects, or as a tool of mass manipulation.  Of course animation has such effects or becomes linked up in such processes.

If animation (again, in my opinion, especially certain anime lineages of animation that are today inseparable from video game production and other moving image formations) is crucial to a field of rationality known as neoliberalism, it is because of its tendency toward the distributive image (that I banged away at before), which meshes with the increased importance of human capital.  Still, this doesn't mean that sovereignty and disciplinary power have been historically superceded.


On 04/02/10 12:18 PM, "davin heckman" <davinheckman at gmail.com> wrote:

This is a great discussion.  And there are lots of interesting twists
and turns, so forgive me for ignoring a whole bunch of other things to
that I can focus on one:

Simon Biggs asked:  " Seeking to assure the topic remains the focus I
will ask whether animation, closely related to visualisation in some
ways, might be a cultural form of expression with particular relevance
in a world that is being progressively rendered instrumentalised
through gradual processes of quantitative ordering."

I think this is one of the most important questions to ask about
animation.  While there are certainly purely aesthetic elements to the
increasing prominence of animation, there are also a whole bunch of
really important cultural, technological, and economic questions that
are related. While the visual aesthetics of animation are significant,
there is also an aesthetic dimension to the temporality of animation.
How motion is represented is, in my opinion, often related to how
space and time are experienced.  The constraints of space and time are
significant both in how they contribute to our notions of reality and
how they exist in tension with our desires.  (I am going to
cannibalize an article that I wrote a while ago, so pardon the abrupt
shift in tone).

 In his article on Jurassic Park, Alan Cholodenko notes that animation
may very well be what cinema has aspired to all along: "By means of
computer animation techniques operating not at the old 'mechanical'
level of the exotechnical but at the level of the esotechnical,
Jurassic Park ecstacizes the process which it declares to be at work
in 'cinema' 'itself', pushing the special effect to its limit, its
fulfillment and annihilation." While Paul Ward, in "Animation Studies,
Disciplinarity and Discursivity," posits a definition of animation
studies that situates it as a cultural studies artifact par
excellence: "My suggestion is that we need to develop a discursive
view of apparently 'multi-sited' fields of knowledge, like Animation
Studies: rather than making what are ultimately false calls for
recognition of yet another free-standing discipline, the dialogic and
dialectical relationship between fields of knowledge must be seen as
the central focus" (par. 1). In other words, animation is formed at
the points of contact between several disciplines - it is mass media,
fine art, literature, and/or cinema. Indeed, in this context, the
argument put forward by Ward in "Animated Realities" on realism
affirms the representational power of animated images.

If we take the claims of theorists like Ward and Cholodenko seriously,
we are poised to reconsider just what we mean when we speak of
animation. If, we accept, as I've described above that animation is a
process of assembling still images from outside of the constraints of
space and time in series to create motion, then we have a meaningful
lens for understanding the pleasures of traditional animation. Common
cartoon gags that run through works of animation icons like Tex Avery,
Friz Freling, Ub Iwerks, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett (running off of a
cliff and pausing to contemplate the situation, the use of Rube
Goldberg machines, the superelastic cartoon body, the direct address
of the viewer, the appearance of the animator's hand, etc.) suggest
both meticulous attention to comic timing and a desire to perpetually
accomplish the impossible.

In the era of analog production, this tension between order and
revolution finds free reign in the animated realm. And though the
manipulation of clock time does exist in traditional cinema
(particularly in the process of editing), the time of production for
the animator is a time of perpetual "editing" undergirded by pressures
(to complete the work and get it to market). But nevertheless, the
animator performs seamlessly a series of impossible jump cuts,
assembling the pictorial world outside of time. Hence the interest in
representing this process playfully, in pushing it, and testing its
boundaries. And, given the industrial employment of audiences, this
playfulness surely found pleasure in the possibility of subverting the
hard rules of space and time through subjective practices (this
playfulness also appears films like Chaplin's Modern Times or Keaton's

In the digital era this changes. As CGI and other digital production
techniques have become more common, we have seen applications of the
technology which showcase their novelty (see for instance, the "Bullet
Time" slow motion of The Matrix, the re-release of the Star Wars
Trilogy, or technocentric spectacle of Tron). But the emergence of a
CGI-film "aesthetic" in films (like 300 and Beowulf), the common use
of CGI for TV series (like Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, and the new
Battlestar Gallactica), and CGI commercials (like Pepsi's "I'm
Spartacus" commercial) have established animation as yet another
aspect of filmmaking. But, as Forrest Gump's revisions of documentary
footage, the Star Wars Trilogy's re-release, and Pepsi's "I'm
Spartacus" commercial demonstrate, digital techniques open up all film
to animation. As digital editing becomes the default position, the
decision to go "natural" becomes an editorial decision (much in the
same way that Jackie Chan's performance of his own stunts, reinforced
by the presentation of injury footage at the end of his films, is
notable because it is the exception). In effect, the digital era
brings all imagery under the auspices of the editorial question. This
fact should make us question the dichotomy that places the process of
out-of-time process of animation beneath the real-time process of
traditional filmmaking. Perhaps it is time to admit that all film
exists in relation to animation. Certainly this view of film
emphasizes the role of discursive framing and deemphasizes the role of
the auteur, the script, and the star in interpretation, as all aspects
of the represented world must be viewed as constructed. To draw an
analogy with popular music, the performer has been replaced by the

This radical reframing of the animation/film relationship that takes
place in the move from analog to digital methods has ramifications for
the relationship between order and revolution described above. As
animation has become a normal aspect of film, there is a certain
expectation among viewers that films can and will play fast and loose
with the rules of space and time.(consider, for instance, the
intersection of globalization, animation, and editing described in
Laurie Cubbison's "Not Just for Children's Television".)

But deeper than these patterned expectations are the material and
cultural processes that underpin these expectations. As Hai Ren
documents in "Subculture as a Neo-Liberal Conduct of Life in Leisure
and Consumption" <http://www.rhizomes.net/issue10/ren.htm>, the
movement of subcultural studies can be summed up in three main
tendencies: the Chicago School's study of youth, deviance, and
delinquency from the 1920s to the '60s, the Birmingham School of
Cultural Studies' focus on the resistant practices of the
disenfranchised from the 1960s to the '80s, and postmodern turn
towards heterogeneity, lifestyle, and leisure from the 1990s to the
present. Ren maps this sweep onto the emergence of late capitalism:

 "I take a genealogical approach to investigate how subculture studies
has contributed to the development of a style of thinking that
addresses the neo-liberal agency of an individual under certain
historical conditions of capitalism. Not only does a subculture
express meanings of style (through clothing, decoration, color, and
music), but it also communicates a personalized way of conducting
one's life, one that especially emphasizes being active (being
eccentric, decoding and recoding), calculative (managing risks and
costs), subjective (accepting discourses, media representations, and
capital accumulation), and intelligent (believing and deciding what
counts as reasonable). The latter dimension of a subculture
underscores an ideal mode of conduct under two important aspects of
the neo-liberal historical condition." (par. 3)

In other words, animation's openness to construction, editing, and
manipulation coincides with the values of neoliberal society. Ren
continues, "The rapid development of media (especially of
multiplicity-based media) provides an important material and cultural
means for the development of neo-liberal modes of conduct in everyday
life" (par. 44). Unlike analog animation, which presented an
alternative to the clock-based temporality of the industrial
workplace, digital animation reinforces the logic of the postmodern

Nowhere is this new logic more evident than in the aura surrounding
Pixar studios. As Rebecca Farley notes:

"The first is the description of Pixar as an animation "house",
relating it back to the domestic, the realm of the private, the realm
of play (as opposed to the public realm of work). This is underlined
by the association with children (who are free to play) and pets (more
domesticity - and of course, what you do with your pet, usually, is to
play with it). Working at Pixar (especially compared to work in
university admin, or a convenience store) can hardly amount to work at
all. It's too much fun." (par. 7)

>From the simulated gag reels that have become standard at the end of
Pixar features to the atmosphere of the studio itself, Pixar seeks to
wrap itself in a narrative of play - a narrative which pervades all
aspects of neoliberal existence...

The Virtual Reality of Jurassic Park and Jean Baudrillard',
International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, 2.1 (January 2005):

Farley, Rebecca. "How Do You Play?" M/C: A Journal of Media and
Culture 1.5 (1998). <http://www.uq.edu.au/mc/9812/how.php>.

Ren, Hai. "Subculture as a Neo-Liberal Conduct of Life in Leisure and
Consumption" Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 10
(Spring 2005): <http://www.rhizomes.net/issue10/ren.htm>.

Ward, Paul. "Animation Studies, Disciplinarity and Discursivity."
Reconstruction, 3.2 (Spring 2003):

Not just for children's television: Anime and the changing editing
practices of American television networks / Laurie Cubbison

Animated realities: the animated film, documentary, realism / Paul Ward

Technological Determinism and the Poisoned Apple: The Case of Snow
White and the Seven Dwarfs / Sean Chadwell
empyre forum
empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au

More information about the empyre mailing list