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Superconversations Day 40: Jason LaRiviere responds to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, "Theorems of Life (as an addendum and clarification on monism)"



Still. Inside Out (2015).

“In a mathematical sense, every particle of matter, in non-organic and organic form, feels,” so Tsiolkovsky states as the twelfth truth in “Theorems of Life,” his manifesto of “vibrant matter” avant la lettre.[1] As intellectual history, it is instructive—so-called “new materialism” isn’t all that new after all. But it is also interesting in this sense: is this not a perfect encapsulation of the credo of that greatest of contemporary ideological apparatuses, Pixar Animation Studios? In a meme that has been circulating online since the release of their newest film, Inside Out, a particular feature of Pixar’s narrative strategy is pointed up quite starkly. In Toy Story, toys are shown to have feelings. In Cars, cars have feelings. In Finding Nemo, fish have feelings, and so on for their oeuvre. Inside Out has followed this logic to the nth degree. Now we see that feelings have feelings too! In the universes of Tsiolkovsky and Pixar alike, it’s feelings all the way down.

Inside Out tells the story of how an eleven year old girl named Riley’s external actions are determined by her internal emotions, depicted in the film as five discreet anthropomorphized entities—joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust—that live in the affect factory of her mind. Riley’s behavior in the outside world is quite literally controlled by the five emotional avatars through a console interface inside her body. Tsiolkovsky could have been anticipating the elevator pitch for the film when he writes that “a complex animal is a combination of a mechanism with its chemical qualities. The later produces feeling, while the mechanism informs us about it.”

Animation has long cashed in on the new materialist instincts of the form—the sense that, as Tsiolkovsky says, “all matter is alive at its core.” This has been one of its greatest appeals historically; animation is an ideal mechanism for showing how machinery is alive, how everything in the world is potentially animate. “Animated films,” Jack Halberstam notes, “are for children who believe that ‘things’ (toys, nonhuman animals, rocks, sponges) are as lively as humans and who can glimpse other worlds underlying and overwriting this one.”[2] Inside Outtakes this conjunction between animation and vitalism very seriously. It seems as if the Pixar brain trust has been reading a bit too much Deleuze.

This is all well and good, of course. Nothing wrong with fashionable theory influencing Hollywood blockbusters, but there is something a bit sideways about Inside Out. Richard Brody notes a kind of insidious regression inherent in the film: “I was jolted from the start by its deformation of children and of mental life. I saw a feature-length sales pitch—or, worse, an indoctrination—to mold kids into beings as artificial and uniform as those created, by computer graphics, in the movie.” What was left out? Precisely what Sianne Ngai might describe as the “ugly feelings” of life.[3] “There should be resentment, jealousy, emulation, curiosity, fascination, and a wider web of connections—history, tradition, lore, anecdotes, all sorts of indirect experience that looms as large in selfhood as do domestic routines and comforts.” Instead, Pixar gives us more of what Lee Edelman calls “the repository of variously sentimentalized cultural identifications” that attend the symbol of the Child, who “has come to embody for us the telos of the social order and come to be seen as the one for whom that order is held in perpetual trust.”[4] Is there not a corresponding danger inherent in the affirmationist discourses around new materialism? If we can locate a symbiosis between new materialism and animation do they not both point to a similar regression to ontological platitudes about internal intensities and oscillating spirits? Does the new materialism end up saying much the same thing as the hit song from The Lego Movie, another recent animated blockbuster: “Everything is Awesome!

The kinds of reading that preceded this latest turn to new materialism—that is to say, reading as such, an ethics of reading—have been vitiated by the post-hermeneutic enthusiasm for various inter-related strains of philosophical materialism and realism that have been consumed, expelled, and consumed again in art theoretical contexts in a scenario similar to that of The Human Centipede, as so vividly described recently by Reza Negarestani. Inside Out shows us that, given such easy access into the recesses of neuro-cognitive interiority, why even bother with something like the depth model of the subject that was so crucial to the critical tools that have guided intellectual work for so long. Perhaps, to reanimate ourselves again, a little negativity is in order.

Jason LaRiviere is a Ph.D. student at New York University. He is currently working on a dissertation project on technical and philosophical compression.

[1] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
[2] Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 27-28.
[3] Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
[4] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 11.

1 Like

Brilliant response Jason. Just to add that the rise of new materialism has a lot to do with the rise of our awareness of the constitutive parts of the cybernetic revolution. It is the latter that remove the intellectual mask and expose the truisms of this philosophical genre as nothing but Sunday network theory.