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The animated paradigm

The Animatic Apparatus
Forfatter: Deborah Levitt
Forlag: ZERO Books (UK/USA)
TECHNOLOGY / What can we say about the ever-increasing technological and state-of-the-art sphere we live in? Animations and simulations appear more and more as "living organisms", while biological life has increasingly become "artificial".


The philosopher Walter Benjamin writes about Mickey Mouse's cartoon universe in the essay Poverty and experience: "Nature and technology, primitiveness and comfort have completely merged." In this animated universe "a car weighs no more than a straw hat, and the fruit on the tree rounds out as fast as (…) a hot air balloon".

Culture and media scientist Deborah Levitt's book The Animatic Apparatus (2018) can be read as an extension of Benjamin's portrayal of the cartoons' ontological confusion, caused by the dissolution of previously established hierarchies of liv og bilde in our time. In the book, Levitt examines the relationship between ubiquitous "artificial" images in the form of animation, CGI effects, Artificial Intelligence, multimedia avatars and simulations and dizzying developments in the «life sciences» biology, medicine and genetics – where cloning, DNA modification and CRISPR technology make it possible to construct, change and optimize, yes, create organic life.

When computer-generated "images" begin to behave more and more like "living organisms", and modern genetic technology is able to produce "life" according to predetermined parameters and notions, Levitt emphasizes, being "alive" no longer becomes something one er, something given, but a field for intervention, production and poiesis. Instead of producing images of living beings exclusively, "living beings" can now be produced from "images."

"Artificial" and "authentic", "original" and "copy", or "living" and "lifeless" are turned upside down.

But how is one to approach the fact that animations and simulations appear more and more as "living organisms", while biological life has increasingly become "artificial" ?. Conceptual hierarchies such as "artificial" and "authentic", "original" and "copy" or "living" and "lifeless" have been turned upside down: Our time is, according to Levitt, in the middle of a paradigm shift which she calls "the animatic apparatus" , whose origin (genealogy) she tries to deduce in her book. Interesting in this context is the etymological meaning of the word «animation»: The original Latin word «animatus» means something like "living" or "bringing to life." It is along the underlying aporias and tensions of this synonymy that Levitt's investigation moves.

Biopolitical control

Starting from the invention of the cinematograph around 1895, Levitt deduces how the emergence of film is accompanied by a new relationship with the body – when it comes to its gestural expression as well as to its physical presence. Already in the scientific prehistory of cinematography, for example with the "chronophotographic camera" of Étienne-Jules Marey or Eadweard Muybridge, respectively, which could take a series of photographic images in quick succession, the seed for biopolitical control and norming lies: Their respective chronophotographic experiments had the goal of study movement sequences with "microscopic" accuracy. The camera's mechanical "eye" could highlight aspects of reality that the naked human eye could not observe. In this connection, Walter Benjamin already coined the concept of the "optically unconscious". Body movements could now be studied at a detailed level: not only, to cite a well-known example, to clarify whether a galloping horse actually had all four legs in the air, but also in a more (dawning) biopolitical sense to analyze – and hence streamline – the course of movement of factory workers.

In biopolitical terms, to analyze the course of movement of factory workers.

Already in the cradle of the film medium, this new technology is thus, as Levitt calls it, used to "reprogram" – and hence norm – bodies in accordance with efficiency maxims. Levitt finds a continuation of the film medium's original biopolitical possibilities in a potentized form in the relatively young field of neurocinematics The latter denotes the neurological study of how film images and sequences are cognitively observed and perceived by the spectator, which then allows marketing departments, producers and directors to measure, calibrate and fine-tune the films according to the desired effect – with a questionable capitalization of our affective structures (emotions) as a result.

Nevertheless, the films' moving images, although they inhabit the threshold between presence and distance, here and there, alive and dead, maintain a relatively stable relationship with the "real". At the moment of filming, the actor's body has an actual physical presence before it is, so to speak, "transformed" into the phantasmagorical image world of the film images. As Levitt emphasizes, things are fundamentally different in our time, not least in the case of the animated, computer-generated image – it lacks any material referent.

The "animatic" paradigm

The leitmotif in Levitt's book is to understand "the animatic" as a figure of thought and paradigm: The concept of simulacre, re-actualized by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, proves best suited to understanding contemporary paradoxes related to body and image. Roughly speaking, it denotes something existing, which cannot be traced back to an origin or essence – so to speak, a "copy without an original". In that sense, computer generated images and simulations are obvious examples. But Levitt's attention is primarily directed at how the "animatic" paradigm reformats the body's psycho-physical sensory apparatus, and – not least – how it changes the understanding of what is included in "the living". Both harmless animations of digital avatars as profile pictures on social media, but also in more real changes of "real" biological bodies – from genital operations to plastic surgery (in one example, the influencer "the Human Barbie" is mentioned, who has undergone countless operations to resemble as much as possible on commodity capitalism's perhaps most iconic plastic doll) – considers Levitt to be symptoms of the "animatic" paradigm.

Ethics for our time

Levitt's book is most ambitious when it attempts to formulate some ethical pointers for this animatic paradigm. When previously apparently fixed physical, historical, teleological or political identities have disintegrated, a potential ethics can no longer be formulated based on questions of "what" and "where".

Rather, starting from Giorgio agambens The Coming Community, a potential ethics for our contemporary and future community must, according to Levitt, start from the question of "how": In the capitalist "spectacle's" seamless fusion of body and image, governed by an underlying, uprooting commodity logic, Agamben identifies an untapped pocket of positive ethical potentiality – a openness beyond totalitarian or identitarian ways of thinking. Freed from theological and biological essence and exemplified by what she calls enabling interaction between body and image in VR technology (virtual reality), Levitt also sees the possibility of new ethical communities in the animatic paradigm. She admittedly leaves the question of how these can be concretized remain open.

If you look at Facebook's recent launch of Metaverse, it can look as if this utopian bubble is also about to burst, and that it has long since been filled by the tech giants' omnipotence fantasies. Perhaps the most rewarding ethical maxim for our time comes from Herman Melville's copyist Bartleby: "I'd prefer not to."

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Lukas Lehner
Freelance writer.

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