Animacy

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Macomb Paynes, "Red Barn." December 12, 2012 via .

This is a review of "Animacy" a panel discussion at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) annual conference Sunday, November 18, 2012 from 8:00 to 9:45 AM. Participants in the discussion were Allen Feldman, Anand Pandian, Kathleen C. Stewart, Hugh Raffles, and Timothy Choy. 

To Timothy Choy’s thinking, describing animacy is always a comparative act; it is always situated in a hierarchy of animacy in action. It is just this movement—charting the movement of a moving target while at the same time inhabiting a moving situation—that all of the papers in this panel sought to address. 

The panel began with an animated recording of Allen Feldman’s analysis of the processes of stasis and endurance with which protesters in Syntagma Square became “Athenian Cockroaches.” Starting from Walter Benjamin’s “vermin” coming to consciousness, Feldman charted a metamorphosis from Hannah Arendt’s  “vita contemplative” to “vita active” through a sensorium of rights realized as “a right not to use rights:” a simultaneous insertion and desertion of an unplaceable body; a politics of unbinding. As the bodies of protesters become more and more resistant to the chemical atmosphere directed toward their eradication, they found themselves in the motion of becoming, in the words of Gilles Deleuze, a different “political speciation.”       

Anand Pandian’s discussion of speed in Tamil cinematic worlds dealt with the sensation of moving without going anywhere. Looking at both the movement of thought and feeling and the movement of the cinematic world, Pandian worked at “running with the excess” of filmic movement itself. Talking in a rapid cadence punctuated by the word “cut” and a snap of his fingers, Pandian performed the arrhythmic movements of filmic speed. By speaking in the language of the cutting room, he intimated the rhythm when scenes skip like a high-speed car chase and become embodied in the gestures and speech of film editors and, on another register, the viewers of the filmic worlds under construction. Noting that speeds under acceleration are velocities felt ubiquitously in the modern world, Pandian argued that perception is much more fragmentary than we think. What might be more important is not how fast we can go but where we can go.

Kathleen Stewart presented a paper on the “constitutive energetics” described by Heidegger as “worldings”; Deleuze as “plains of expressivity”; Lefebvre as “rhythms”; Barthes as “shimmerings”; and Raymond Williams as “structures of feeling.” Starting from Tim Ingold’s “animic ontology” and the conceptual framework of “technologies of lived abstraction” proposed by Brian Maussumi and Erin Manning, Stewart outlined the “hardening hardwiring of money and class” embedded in systems of surveillance in Las Vegas gaming systems and the processes in which redness came to be embedded in New England landscapes through the rhythmic dispersal first of red homes and then, in turn, red barns. Coupled with the “extra muscle of sociality and belief,” these scenes of animacy—a machine of connectivity and a color sensibility—became two expressions of a “germinal aesthetic.”  

Rounding out the panel, Hugh Raffles offered “Some Preliminary Notes on Stoning.” Working behind the notion that stones are “the matter of the universe,” Raffles traced a genealogy of stoning as a ritual action grounded in human affects and material animacies. By routed his line of inquiry through the stones themselves, he tried to hold back from an immediate leap to discursive symbolization. Looking at Renaissance scenes of stoning, the most famous of which is the stoning of St. Stephen, Raffles noted the undeniable movement of pounding the martyr down, into the ground. Acknowledging that “it’s not a light thing to take a life,” Raffles tried to resist the ambiguity of the “process-becoming-vibrational thing” which he sees emerging from Deleuzian-Whiteheadian-Groszian scholarship. Yet despite these reservations, he attempted to think with Alphonso Lingis’ notion of animacy as a sense of the spiritual and ethical imperatives inherent in material things. In so doing he noted the ways in which stones have come to mark graves and contain the spirits of transforming animacies. By rendering the practice unfamiliar, Raffles sought to hold open the possibility of stoning as both a sanctimonious killing and a gift of the stone.

Speaking to the daunting task of commenting on these presentations Timothy Choy said, “These papers were more than rich. They were densely argued and thrown at you.” To his thinking, the animacy articulated and performed in this discussion outlined the triggers that affect other bodies in the “great chain of being.” The presentations also tried, with great care to the craft of writing, not to subject that content to the reduction of symbolization. Instead, the affective entanglements of becoming-cockroach, speed, surveillance, redness, and stoning were left to speak as things for themselves. 

Darren Byler is a Ph.D student in anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. His research centers on the intersections of a phenomenology of urban living, expressive culture, and minoritarian politics in China and Central Asia.