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Animation’s Reassemblage

This talk at Cornerhouse, Manchester, considers some of the outlines of animation in relation to subversion, in its broadest sense – what an animated line, or an animated squidge of material, that seems to move of its own accord, is, has been, can be.   To begin at one of the beginnings. At the start of things, at the moment before things are formed or settled into form, subversion inhabits objects. Just as the proto-novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy anticipated by 150 years the self-conscious, digressive, impossible novel of modernism, so too the first cartoons broke up a form that did not yet exist and set the medium of animation off on its first footing as a humorous occasion for self-reflexivity. Let’s start with an early animation – Little Nemo in Slumberland from 1911. Winsor McCay began animating in 1911. His well-distributed comic strips of previous years thematically set the city in motion in a dreamworld called Slumberland, explored by a little boy called Nemo. Little Nemo’s adventures in Slumberland began in October 1905, and appeared in a supplement of The New York Herald. Each week Little Nemo encounters snow, ice, storms, earthquakes, sudden climactic shifts, as well as mobile cities, and shifting interiors, in short an environment and an architecture of absolute impermanence and drama. His animations used the rhythms of modernity more concretely, or literally. It was his very first one that transformed Nemo to the screen, tentatively. In this cartoon, inside the boxes of New York clubs and offices, men conspire to give flat shapes life and colour, for McCay has a wager with colleagues that he can draw and colour 4000 cels in a month. This achieved, the cartoon launches into a portion of colourful animation – such contrast to the grey suited figures in the office blocks. In the couple of minutes of animated film there is little narrative as such. Rather with its jumping and rolling in a white space, the animation celebrates the principle of movement per se, which comes here to seem, in itself, liberating, infinitely potential. An unmotivated, illogical squashing and stretching plays out nothing other than the very principle of cartooning itself. Transformation is constantly at work here – again the very principle of cartooning. Nemo grabs the drawing implement and sketches his princess, bringing his dreamy reality into being.  As befits utopia, a rose grows instantly for him to offer as a symbol of his adoration and a dragony boat appears on cue.  After a car and a crash – another new experience of modernity – McCay’s own hand appears on the last drawn frame, with the number 4000 on it. The animation could be described as an example of the ‘optical illusion of movement’, though it is honest about its source and does not seek to deceive. It might better be described as a rumination on the passage between living and drawing, between lifelessness and life, identity and non-identity. It is not an illusion of movement but presents movement itself, as a feat, rushing through the projector, the result, as the film makes clear, of thousands of drawings and gallons of ink. Could the motion generated in these first studio-offices of mass cultural production be seen as a modelling of the dynamic, ever-changing forms of modernity? More specifically, might it be seen as a modelling of the dynamic commodity economy, within which it – and its ilk in the various wonderful and awful shapes of the culture industry, will come to play such a huge role?


Consciously or unconsciously, McCay’s cartoons defied the manic speed of production in New York, and for that alone were a type of subversion, if a suicidal one. They used no labour-saving methods. The hand-drawn animations were detailed, beautiful, and took many months to produce. How a Mosquito Operates came in 1912, detailing the sustained assault of a gnat on a sleeping man. McCay’s story of an animal tamer and his dinosaur, Gertie the Dinosaur, was first shown in Chicago in 1914. McCay’s films were shown as vaudeville acts. Lightning drawings and lectures preceded the film showings, and when the films were playing McCay interfered with them, always drawing attention to their source in his imagination. A later effort, The Sinking of the Lusitania, made in 1918, was a cartoon that imitated the rhythm of newsreels. 25 000 drawings depicting the final hours of an ocean steamer sunk by a German submarine shimmered their elegant lines on the screen. At twenty-five minutes in length, it was the longest animation ever made. Returning after this to the ludicrousness and irrationalism of dreams – more enchanting than the mournful recreation of tragic documentary reality – McCay made a series of Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend films in 1921. It was that year, on 8 June, that the artist Man Ray wrote a note to the artist Tristan Tzara: ‘Cher Tzara - dada cannot live in New York. All New York is dada and will not tolerate a rival, – will not notice Dada’. [1] Man Ray had an inkling of something – New York had little use for dada, this art movement from Europe, born of the tensions of world war and devoted to the toppling of the establishment pillars of church, state and monarchy. New York was a super-modern city without archaic traditions. It was a place of speed, polyglot languages and raucous entertainment, and, as such, home to cultural forms that Dada could only emulate. Modern metropolitan life – hurried, technological, fragmented, alienating, transient - evoked new cultural forms: illustrated magazines, radio, pulp crime fiction, movies and the comic strips included in every newspaper, McCay’s among them, and the new film culture. Certainly a Dadaistically unhinged sense of city perspectives, dream–infused landscapes, absurd inconsequentialities and fantastical urban bodies was apparent in New York output, such as in the popular little films from Fox Movietone Newsreel titled the Loony Lens series, with its anamorphic people and splitting skyscrapers, visual techniques adopted also a little later in Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. As in the cartoon world, in these short films people, buildings, cars and other inanimate objects widen and flatten, double and split and generally defy all the laws of physics. Even physics – the science of physical experience in the world – it would seem, is provisional. And objects always become other to themselves, subverting their own integrity and coherence.

In 1919 Felix the Cat – or better a prototype called Master Tom – appeared in a short called Feline Follies. [2] . Feline Follies opens on Master Tom as he hears a female cat meowing in the distance. He is intrigued, and his long black upright tail curls into a question mark. Later it becomes a toothbrush. It is a detachable prop, and inventively transformable, as are other things in this cartoon world: musical notes from the cat’s wooing serenade become parts of a scooter, the tail its baseboard. Nine years later and Felix was still de and re-constructing his body. In Comicalamities the animator forgets to draw Felix’s tail and Felix has to send for a boot boy to colour him in. His tail stands as symbol of the whole process of animation. As well as providing punctuation to scenes or serving as an accessory, it is also a pencil. If the story needs it, he can draw his own escape routes or erase a displeasing sight. But he cannot dispense with the force that gives him life – the animator, whose hand buts in when Felix needs it or who tries to override Felix’s own seeming desires.


Early cartoons and trick films produced to entertain the city hoards were experimental and crazy, using cinematic tricks and visual gags that defied logic. The early Disney cartoons also drew on the same kinds of gags. Walt Disney’s first Laugh-O-Gram cartoon in 1922, The Four Musicians of Bremen, used absurd transformations and typographic effects. Musical notes float on the air. The word ‘ouch’ emanates from a tree, as does the word ‘idea’ from a fish’s head, and, in a nod to Felix, the cat removes its tail and uses it as a bat to parry attacking artillery fire, before riding off on a cannonball as if it were a motorbike. In the mid-1920s in Alice in Cartoonland Disney put a real girl in the animated world. Alice’s Fishy Story [1924] opens with a little girl forced to do her piano practice. She escapes by getting her dog to tinkle on the keys, and so deludes her mother into thinking it is she who plays. Animals are children’s willing helpers in the cartoonworld, just as they are in fairy tales. In a dream sequence, which fades into cartoon, she visits the North Pole. A cat is there with a skate on his tail and two on his back legs. As he slides the same backdrop goes by again and again. The big story, reported in The Arctic Breeze newspaper, is that the fish have gone on strike, and so the Eskimos are starving. Idea!! radiates from the cat’s head, as he uses his tail to drill into the snow. But the fish fight back, as a swordfish cuts a circle around him. Live Alice turns up to save with day when the rescued cat is sent to the wrecked Hesperus, to dredge up chewing tobacco from 1854. He chucks in plugs and when the fish come up to spit it out, he bonks them on head with his detached tail. In the Alice in Cartoonland series the real world and the cartoon world smash up against each other. It is clear that the cartoonworld offers many more possibilities. In the real world, which materializes at the end of Alice’s Fishy Story, all film and no more drawings, Alice and friends are chased off the private land they have occupied. The end is the return to reality – the reality of the law, property, school, home. The utopia of cartoon existence is forfeited.


The makeshift Disney studio turned out the Alice films at a rate of one every two or three weeks. It was fast-paced production. When that cartoon had run its course, Disney started producing a new series called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit – this precursor to Mickey Mouse was a huge success. Oswald inhabited a very rubbery reality – limbs extend and stretch endlessly to provide more gags. Even cars and other inanimate objects widen and flatten and generally defy all the laws of physics to live in the cartoon world. Disney's cartoons at this stage were experimental and crazy - using cinematic tricks and visual gags that defied logic.


It was all these aspects of transformation, transmutation, alogicality, anti-physics, non-realism that appealed to the many intellectuals and artists – Dadaists and revolutionaries in Europe foremost amongst them – who fell in love with cartoon product and the outputs of American popular modernity in the 1920s. For some, even as it modeled the dramas of rapidly changing city life, it offered glimpses of utopia, of ‘other living’. For example, in an essay titled ‘Experience and Poverty’, from 1933, the German critic Walter Benjamin indicates Mickey Mouse’s ability to embody utopian aspiration for a technology-ravaged, yet technology-dependant populace. [3] He identifies the existence of Mickey Mouse as a dream for today's people. Mickey Mouse's existence is full of miracles, and these miracles not only outdo technical wonders, but satirise them too. Mickey Mouse inhabits a world of wonders where suddenly a cow will turn into a musical box or a skirt a parachute, or a church steeple will crunch itself up in order that the crazy plane can avoid crashing into it with Mickey and Minnie Mouse on board. In Benjamin's analysis, Mickey Mouse is seen to fulfil the wish for a harmonious reconciliation of technology and nature, a speaking to each other, a wild co-operation, and that in an age when technological change threatens in all actuality to destabilise nature, and even destroy it. But the benign union of technology and nature has to be relegated to the dreamworld of comics, photographs and cinema, where machinery indulges humans in darkened rooms or closeted parlours, for in reality, in industrial capitalism, technology and nature, or, in other words, machinery and humans, are so set against each other, torn apart or tearing each other apart.   But the interest in cartoons on the part of critical intellectuals such as Walter Benjamin was not just thematic. It was also formal. In modelling significantly reconceived relations between technology and nature, early comic strips and young animation processes broke open the self-understanding of the image, fracturing it into absurdism, while also remaining true to the dynamic realities of capitalist expansion. Technological products of culture themselves, they provided opportunities to explore the impact of technological change on human perception and inhabitation of the world.

In 1935, in the first version of Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’, a section titled ‘Mickey Mouse’ explains how in film’s strange modernist montage-land, first steps were taken for a critical reconfiguration of our world. [4] This was a move more significant than the escapades of dada, which might only limp behind the escapades of commercial culture. In the essay, Benjamin contrasts the magician, or faith healer, who cures through the laying on of hands to the surgeon who intervenes in the body, augmented by machinery such as scalpel and forceps. Such cutting in is designed to open up and then heal. Benjamin extends the association. The painter, he says, is like a magician or faith healer, glossing over a surface. The camera operator is like a surgeon who cuts in to the web of reality. For Benjamin, the most appropriate use of the camera lens and the processes of editing or printing up are able to subject reality to a segmenting, which slices through the natural appearance of everyday life, contravening any innate tendency of film to glide across the mirror-surface of reality in pure reflection. Reality as mediated in film, Benjamin says, is cut into by the surgeon-cinematographer, then stitched together again in more or less visible sutures. For Benjamin such dissection, an investigation of the world in close-up, the production of links between things through montage, the analysis of movement through slow-motion and so on, is part of a critical, scientific approach to the world. This is accompanied by an anti-naturalist, utopian rebuttal of physical laws and ‘natural’ constraint. As he puts it in Thesis XI of his essay on technological reproducibility:  the image becomes a multiply fragmented thing, whose parts reassemble themselves according to new laws. Film and photography might not do this, they might just re-affirm the surface of reality but their very nature, their very technology cries out to be deployed in montage form. What point film without montage? What point photography without superimposition? What point film without slow-motion or speed-up or photography without super-enlargement of scale? The image of reality, as specifically represented in film and photography, is an image of the real that has been mediated, subjected to analysis, works with incongruities, destruction, construction, reconstructions.  It is just such an image that animation cannot help but bring back. In cartoons adventurous travellers are offered a multitude of trips through widely strewn ruins in a world turned anti-physical. The dynamite of the split-second explodes this world, notes Benjamin. Space is expanded and shrunk by montage, while time is stretched and contracted by time loops. Cartooning takes such anti-physics for granted. Herein is its utopian or critical impulse.

As many have argued, animation contains within itself always a sense in which its objects and images, drawn or modelled, are motile, flexible, open to possibility, able to extend in any direction, undertake any action or none. Sergei Eisenstein devised a category of ‘plasmaticness’ that he evoked in order to stress this originary shape-shifting potential of the animated, the way in which an object or image, drawn or modelled, strains beyond itself, can adopt potentially any form, thereby proposing an expansion beyond current constraints. [5] Where Walter Benjamin had observed the anti-physical, anti-naturalist aspects of animation, Eisenstein focused on its renditions of the physical world, as his starting points and relationship to science was rather different from Benjamin’s and the Frankfurt School. For Eisenstein it was animated fire, which, he observes, ‘is capable of most fully conveying the dream of a flowing diversity of forms’. [6] For Eisenstein, fire is formless. Fire is pure transformation. Fire is restless. It was the fire behind the mirror’s mask in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that evoked these thoughts.


This is animation’s utopian axis. Animation is, for Eisenstein, an ecstatic form, that is to say, its objects are ecstatic and, also, it induces ecstasy in its viewers. It makes the viewer be beside him or herself. Animation forces transition, a difference in quality. As Eisenstein puts it in Non-Indifferent Nature: ‘To be beside oneself is unavoidably also a transition to something else, to something different in quality. . . . to be out of the usual balance and state, to move to a new state’. (NN, p. 27)  Such movement to a new state is made analogous to a physical process. If fire is a transformation, formless form, so too is water. Water might be steam, ice, liquid and always passing between any of these states, when subjected to processes of heating, cooling, agitation, pressure and so on.  In Non-Indifferent Nature Eisenstein states that ‘if water, steam, ice, and steel could psychologically register their own feelings at these critical moments -- moments of achieving the leap, they would say they are speaking with pathos, that they are in ecstasy. (NN 35-6, emphasis in original) Animation is compelling because it is the ‘as if’ of water, steam, ice and steel registering their own feelings at critical moments. The artist at the same time, notes Eisenstein, creates ‘the necessary conditions’  - specifically the construction of pathos - for the transformation of the spectator too into an ecstatic state. It makes the viewer restless – this from a man, of course, who had proposed Kino-Fist, an assault on the viewer, as the appropriate mode of a new political cinema.

To draw towards a conclusion: Animation, as any Wikipedia reader knows, is ‘the optical illusion of movement’, whether achieved through photographing drawings, moving clay models and recording the tweaks frame by frame, drawing directly on film or devising models digitally. But the definition is a weak one, or only a starting point. Not only animation but all film/video proceeds by generating an ‘optical illusion of movement’. A recording device samples fragments of the world, repeatedly biting a moment of time from its flow. Later the resulting still frames of a film or video strip are cranked or streamed into motion, generating a second-order recreation of the motion of which they had once been part.
Might it be better to argue that animation’s special contribution to cinematic culture is not the illusion of movement but rather, chiastically, and at least potentially, the movement of illusion, a displacement that brings to light or focuses the given illusion even to the point of dispelling it? It does this through the condensation, within and between animated elements, of a number of movements, a series of passages between different states and forces, conditions and temporalities. A shorthand version of my definition is animation is ‘different nature’ or animation is ‘non-indifferent nature’. Animation is ‘different nature’ (a line that comes from Walter Benjamin [7] ) and I use it because nature is of a different nature to ours, but not distinct from it. I mean that in multiple ways. Animation depicts a nature, frequently, that is hybridzed: speaking animals, flowers that blush and son. Animation’s nature does not obey the laws of physics. Rain might fall upwards in it. Animation’s nature is, like all film, segmented, montaged, cinematically digested, that is to say, mediated –it is ‘second nature’. Animation reflects on nature, but shatters its laws in its physics-defying recombinations of space, time and matter. Animation proposes ‘small worlds’, each one bound by the newly and specifically devised laws of the animator.

Or, to run this all back the other way, animation is ‘non-indifferent nature’ (Eisenstein [8] ), because it appeals to us, invites us into its particular small world. Its appeal is mediated via technology and is a shuttle between the image world of a new or second nature and us, addressed too as nature. We are invited in for the duration of the show. This image world or microcosm, is, in turn, appropriated – or better, inhabited - by its viewers. Animation’s small and dialectical image worlds propose certain stances on the part of viewers, encouraging them to be at least minimally alert to the ways of the image world unrolling before them, especially as it compares to the world in which they sit. They are aware too, at some, if only subliminal, level, of the differences within the image world, that is to say, the gaps between the cels or poses. These gaps, key to animation’s structure, enable the excessive or implausible movements that characterise animation and mark it as seemingly unlimited and infinitely potential. This animated nature might assume any form and usually does in its presentation of hybrids of human and animal, coagulations of machineries and bodies, scenarios in which natural law is overturned or maliciously asserted. Animation presents a dynamic image world in which, in much the same way as Sergei Eisenstein, Disney-fan, describes the dialectical cinema he hoped to develop as his contribution to post-revolutionary culture, there is manifested a condensation of tensions that appeals, or may appeal, in a particular, cognitive way to its viewers. This is because, in propelling the viewer from image to thought, from percept to concept, it models the motion of thinking itself – such that viewers are invited to complete the film through an act of appropriation of its new – and subverted - nature.

Animation is varied and wild. It is art and not art, adult and childish, hopeful and cynical, daft and serious. But in all those various forms I think, at least some of what I have said, holds true – and to repeat my watchword for the talk. Animation is not or not simply the illusion of movement. It is also, somehow or other, the movement of illusion.





[1] The letter, headed with the line ‘merdelamerdelamerdelamerdelarmerdelamerique!’, is reproduced in Amelia Jones, Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2004, p. 4.

[2] Like Walt Disney, Pat Sullivan was an incompetent drawer. Otto Messmer designed Felix the Cat and drew him for the first few years until Felix’s popularity required the hiring of other drawers.

[3] Walter Benjamin, ‘Experience and Poverty’, Selected Writings, 2, pp. 734-5.

[4] Walter Benjamin, GS I.1, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991.

[5] Sergei M. Eisenstein, Eisenstein on Disney, Methuen, London 1988, p. 11.

[6] Eisenstein, Eisenstein on Disney. p. 24.

[7] Walter Benjamin’s phrase for this is ‘eine andere Natur’. This has been variously translated as ‘a different nature’ and ‘another nature’.

[8] The phrase ‘non-indifferent nature’ is, of course, to be found where Eisenstein found it: in Hegel. It occurs in his discussion of Chemism in paras 200-203 of the Logic, where it is crucial to a discussion of motion, transformation and affinity in natural processes.