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Animation, De-reification, and the New Charm of the Inanimate


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My three-year-old nephew plays with toy cars and model trains just like I did fifty years ago when I was his age. I recently wanted to give him a present, and so, thrilled with nostalgic anticipation, I walked into the toy department at a large store for the first time in decades. I was truly baffled by what I saw there: there was not a single car, not a single locomotive, crane, truck, construction vehicle, sports car, or tractor without eyes, a nose, and a smiling mouth. These simpering objects moreover bore first names, and little stories about them were printed on the packaging. Now, everyone knows that children have been animist creatures for as long as the concept of animism has existed. They are the ideological complement of the so-called savages or the so-called primitive peoples, matching their animism. For only if we can ascribe an ultimately familiar form of humanity—that of children—to those peoples, can we at once also deny them full—which is to say, developed—humanity. They are like us, but different, and that is the principle proposition on which any culturalizing, any ideology that supports segregation by marking some as others, rests. Such ideology is particularly careful never to mention the absolutely Other, which for now abides in a select few (of the better) science-fiction novels—or among the “Old Ones” from H. P. Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu,” among other stories, in their “blasphemous” ugliness.

My childhood also knew an animist zone peopled by teddy bears and other stuffed animals, but it was fringed, however, by a second zone of games and toys that gestured toward reality, towards the world of inanimate things that functioned rationally and could be controlled. I would almost say that the animate zone and the realistic zone (to use a tentative name) were interdependent. What was important about the toy cars and model trains in the realistic zone was that they referred to the concrete world of existence. They were hard, made of metal, designed, authentic, robust. Recognizing specific car brands from the street and being able to sort and categorize them was part of the point: these were things. Today, however, it seems that an overarching holistic sphere of animae fills the world of children and, to a degree, that of Harry Potter–reading, esoterica-believing adults. Animist toys have triumphed over the technological toys of the Fordist and industrialized world. The current generation of educators (and the culture industry that caters to them) twists Jean Piaget’s maxim of infantile animism—namely, that the child animates things according to their function—into its opposite. For the children Piaget observed, things did possess a soul and consciousness, but they actualized them solely for the action that corresponded to their special function: the wind knew that it must blow, the chair, that it must support me, and so forth. In contrast with this instrumental and Taylorist animism, today’s animism holistically multiplies its esoteric parents.

There is nothing new about teaching children about the world by animating things. What is new, however, is that the world of cranes, locomotives, and model planes now grins and talks at us. As far back as the 1920s, Paul Valéry had a presentiment, an eerie vision of a future world under the total rule of the culture and music industries, though he had in fact experienced the same vision as a child:

I am reminded here of a fairy play that, as a child, I saw in a foreign theater. Or perhaps I only fancy I saw it. In the Sorcerer’s palace the furniture spoke and sang, took a poetic and mischievous part in the action. A door opening set off the piping or solemn tones of a village band. If anyone sat down on a pouf, it would sigh politely. At a touch everything breathed forth a melody.

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