The World is a Cartoon: Stray Notes on Animation


I belong to an online group associated with Maureen Furniss' Animation Journal. I've not posted anything (yet), but I get the group's postings several times per week. It isn't usually a site for debating or developing ideas — it seems to function mostly as a clearing house for information, a way to track down people, films, and facts. Recently though, a problem came along that sparked a sustained and thoughtful debate: what is "experimental animation"?

A frequent — and certainly reasonable — assertion in the online debate was that in order to discuss or conceptualize a thing, it had to be defined. After all, what is a concept but its mental image, its definition? The act of setting up disciplinary / genre / definitional /categorical boundaries was seen as a necessary, preparatory task — a clearing of the ground. But I must admit I have no interest in such a thing. Some preparatory tasks are endless, unproductive, futile. Categorical boundaries shift, fold, interpenetrate, making any clearing of the ground a task which might just self-perpetuate, leading nowhere. For instance: "documentary." As a discipline, documentary scholarship seems as if it will be forever mired in "fundamental" questions. Luckily, perhaps, the stakes seem lower for animation scholarship. There is, at this time, less of a moral imperative to define animation's relationship to the world, or to truth.

I want to explore the nature of animation, the possibilities contained within the animated image; to establish, after Bazin, something like an ontology of the animated image. Yet, I will exert no effort to define "animation" (let alone "experimental animation"). I run the risk that my refusal is perverse rather than productive. Still, I have some good company. For instance, Lev Manovich's highly influential redefinition of animation is entirely circular, as we'll see below. In fact, some of the most interesting writers on animation provide, at best, partial or inconsistent definitions of animation. Instead, they use animation, or the difference between animation and live-action, to develop particular concepts: Sean Cubitt's vector, Vilem Flusser's imaginal thought, Jean-Francois Lyotard and D. N. Rodowick's figural. It is through such concepts that it becomes possible to claim that animation is now and will continue in becoming the driving force of new media and the moving image: the sharpest point.

In this essay then, this collection of stray notes, I will pursue my vague and, I think, still mysterious question through the work of various theorists, critics, and artists.


Lev Manovich: Myth of Prodigal Return

The most influential recent work which undertakes to redefine animation in this age of digital technology is Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media, particularly "Chapter 6: What is Cinema." It is no accident that his project, which begins by investigating the relations between cinema and new media, resolves itself by making claims about animation. Manovich examines these relations along two trajectories. The first trajectory, which I would characterize as conservative, is historical: Manovich "uses the history and theory of cinema to map out the logic driving the technical and stylistic development of new media."(LNM, 287) The second, potentially more radical, trajectory goes in the opposite direction: from computers to cinema. It asks: "How does computerization affect our very concept of moving images? Does it offer new possibilities for film language? Has it led to the development of totally new forms of cinema?" (LNM, 287)

Manovitch's myth begins with an unassailably reasonable assertion. Cinema has been dominated by the live action film: "unmodified photographic recordings of real events that took place in real, physical space." (LNM, 294) That is, lens-based recordings of reality. Manovich is at his best, I think, when he deploys a kind of hyperbole that is, nonetheless, razor sharp. Here, vanquishing the dominator, he reduces all of non-animated cinema to "an attempt to make art out of a footprint."

Yet behind even the most stylized cinematic images, we can discern the bluntness, sterility, and banality of early nineteenth-century photographs. No matter how complex its stylistic innovations, the cinema has found its base in these deposits of reality, these samples obtained by a methodical and prosaic process. Cinema emerged out of the same impulse that engendered naturalism, court stenography, and wax museums. Cinema is the art of the index; it is an attempt to make art out of a footprint.

According to Manovich, whatever the qualities of the digital image, they are not inherently indexical. When indexicality can no longer be seen as a defining quality of an image, what repercussions are there for the ontology of the image? If we move from a lens- to a computer-based production of images, can there still be representations of the world?

. . . the manual construction of images in digital cinema represents a return to the pro-cinematic practices of the nineteenth century, when images were hand-painted and hand-animated. At the turn of the twentieth century, cinema was to delegate these manual techniques to animation and define itself as a recording medium. As cinema enters the digital age, these techniques are again becoming commonplace in the filmmaking process. Consequently, cinema can no longer be clearly distinguished from animation. It is no longer an indexical media technology but, rather, a subgenre of painting.(LNM, 295)

Manovich defines animation through a myth of prodigal return. Pro-cinematic machines (kinetoscope, thaumatrope, etc.) relied on hand-painted or hand-drawn images, loops that were manually animated. The cinema proper combined the automatic generation and projection of images. Once the technology stabilized, cinema cut all references to its origins in artifice. Animation was banished as "cinema's bastard relative, its supplement and shadow." (LNM, 298)

With the burgeoning digital technologies of the 1990s, the prodigal returns: marginalized techniques of animation reclaim their apparent birth-right. Manovich offers a definition of digital film that becomes (morphs into) a re-definition of animation:

digital film  =  live action material  +  painting  +  image processing  +  compositing  +  2-D computer animation + 3-D computer animation (LNM, 301)

Now we can finally answer the question "What is digital cinema?" Digital cinema is a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many elements.

Born from animation, cinema pushed animation to its periphery, only in the end to become one particular case of animation. (LNM, 302, italics in original)

There are two trajectories here: cinema and animation. Cinema has three stages: early or pro-cinema, which is allied to animation; the cinema, in which cartoons are ignored and denigrated; and the digital cinema, which is, literally animation. While cinema develops — has a history — animation remains essentially immutable. As the heart of cinema, it seems to be outside of history in Manovich's myth. And despite the fact that Manovich's study is based on an examination of the possibilities engendered by the technological advances of new media, animation's essence as manually-produced artifice also lies outside of any particular technological concerns. He escapes the perniciously teleological myth of paradigm shifts, but just barely. In the end, animation is triumphant, but at the price of an enormous leveling: it becomes everything. It seems to me that both assertions are equally plausible and, perhaps, equally meaningless: Cinema has become one particular case of animation. Animation has become one particular case of cinema. The words "one particular case" may simply function as a rhetorical place-holder to keep his definition from becoming ridiculously bald: Cinema has become animation. Animation has become cinema.


Deleuze: Animation's Banishment

If you're looking for mention of animated film in the Cinema books of Gilles Deleuze, you don't have to look far. The sole mention comes on page five of Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Deleuze begins with theses on movement derived from philosopher Henri Bergson, in particular from two books that straddle the birth of cinema: Matter and Memory (1896) and Creative Evolution (1907). Deleuze deploys Bergson to (among other things) tackle a problem which has been central to the theorization of cinema since Andre Bazin's "The Ontology of the Photographic Image": the relationship of cinema to still photography, particularly in terms of movement and time.

Deleuze's (version of Bergson's) thesis is perhaps best explained in relation to one of Zeno's paradoxes (an arrow will never reach its destination as the space it traverses is infinitely divisible), and stands with phenomenology as an attempt to reconceptualize time as immanently experienced rather than unfolding in the transcendent. The thesis separates movement from the space it covers. The space that movement covers is infinitely divisible, but the movement is irreducible — it cannot be divided without being destroyed (becoming another movement altogether). The space Zeno's arrow traverses may be infinitely divisible, but the arrow's motion is not. Every movement has an intrinsic quality a particular, concrete duration [duree].

Therefore it is false to say that cinema works with two complementary givens: the individual frame or still image and movement that is "impersonal, uniform, abstract, invisible, or imperceptible, which is 'in' the apparatus." Cinema may be constructed from photogrammes (individual frames), but it is incorrect to think of it as being immobile sections to which abstract time is added. Cinema is not photography + time/movement. Movement is immediately given; it is part of the filmic apparatus, and not a supplement or addition. "In short, cinema does not give us an image to which movement is added, it immediately gives us a movement-image." (C1, 2)

Deleuze, via Bergson, goes on to distinguish between privileged instants and any-instants-whatever. The idea of privileged instants corresponds to the ancient view of movement. "For antiquity, movement refers to intelligible elements, Forms or Ideas which are themselves eternal and immobile." (C1, 4) The any-instant-whatever is a modern concept. "The modern scientific revolution has consisted in relating movement not to privileged instants, but to any-instant-whatever. Although movement was still recomposed, it was no longer recomposed from formal transcendental elements (poses), but from immanent material elements (sections)." (C1, 4, italics in original)

The animated film poses a problem for Deleuze, so much so that he questions whether it might not "belong fully to the cinema." This is because animation has the potential to be constructed from privileged instants rather than any-instants-whatever.

When we think about the prehistory of cinema, we always end up confused, because we do not know where its technological lineage begins, or how to define this lineage. We can always refer to shadow puppets, or the very earliest projection systems. But, in fact, the determining conditions of the cinema are the following: not merely the photo, but the snapshot (the long-exposure photo [photo de pose] belongs to the other lineage); the equidistance of snapshots; the transfer of this equidistance on to a framework which constitutes the "film" (it was Edison and Dickson who perforated the film in the camera); a mechanism for moving on images (Lumiere's claws). It is in this sense that the cinema is the system which reproduces movement as a function of any-instant-whatever that is, as a function of equidistant instants, selected so as to create an impression of continuity. Any other system which reproduces movement through an order of exposures [poses] projected in such a way that they pass into one another, or are "transformed," is foreign to the cinema. This is clear when one attempts to define the cartoon film; if it belongs fully to the cinema, this is because the drawing no longer constitutes a pose or a completed figure, but the description of a figure which is always in the process of being formed or dissolving through the movement of lines and points taken at any-instant-whatevers of their course. The cartoon is not related to a Euclidean, but to a Cartesian geometry. It does not give us a figure described in a unique moment, but the continuity of the movement which describes the figure. (C1, 5)

Deleuze's (partial) expulsion of animation from cinema follows from his extremely limited lineage of pro-cinematic technologies. Gone are the magic lanterns and zoetropes in favour of the snapshot. Emile Cohl's Fantasmagorie (1908) would be, in the Deleuzian sense, cinematic, while the work of, say, William Kentridge, in which movement is not a continuity of any-instants-whatever but simply bridges the privileged instants of individual drawings, would not be. (It is no coincidence that Rosalind Krauss misreads Deleuze's idea of the cinema as being inclusive of animation in her otherwise brilliant essay on Kentridge below.)


Sean Cubitt: Graphical Film: The Vector

Sean Cubitt seems to have never met an idea he didn't like. It would not be inappropriate to describe his book The Cinema Effect (2004) in terms generally reserved for action movies: it is an exhilarating ride. We'll limit ourselves to a few of the ideas — the key ones, of course, but also a few others — in the chapter which deals most directly with animation: "Graphical Film: The Vector." If there is a proliferation of ideas in this chapter, there is, mercifully, a single object to which they are applied: Emile Cohl's Fantasmagorie (1908).

We find in Cubitt, I think, a synthesis of Deleuze and Manovich; animation is no longer banished from cinema, for it is cinema. Yet certain types of animation (the vector-based graphical film, in particular) are privileged cinematically. It is no coincidence, then, that Cubitt's description of the film concludes with the Deleuzian assertion that it is not related to Euclidean, but (presumably) Cartesian, geometry:

Fantasmagorie is a brief line animation in which a mysterious puppet, Pierrot or fantoche, and his environment change seamlessly. Flowers become bottles become a cannon; an elephant becomes a house; Pierrot becomes a bubble, a hat, a valise. The vector of Cohl's line, as it draws and redraws itself, disrespects the frame edge and equally ignores the syntax of layering, most notably in the small "screen" that appears on at the left of the image as the action with the woman in the hat takes place. Not only does this appear to reprise the scenes that we have just watched, but it also lies on an axis of depth from which the other characters are debarred. For example, when the little Pierrot gets bigger, it is not because he is closer to the virtual eye of the rostrum camera, but because he has been inflated. Likewise, the sword-wielding giant shares the same plane as Pierrot. However, it is not simply that the rules of the cut are being broken: rather, Fantasmagorie obeys another set of rules in the same way that the real line is bound by laws other than those of Euclidean geometry. (CE, 75-6)

Cohl sacrifices editing, story-telling and staging-in-depth in favour of a uniform line which can perform a series of metamorphoses that is potentially infinite. Cubitt describes this as a grammatical structure that is primarily paradigmatic, rather than syntagmatic.

The rules of syntax govern the structure of meaningful sentences. The structure of "My life is an open book" is the same as that of "His cat is a wicked creature" . . . What differentiates them is the [paradigmatic] substitution of "life" for "cat." Linguists speak of grammar as the syntagmatic axis and imagine it as a horizontal line . . . The paradigmatic axis is correspondingly the vertical axis, like the reels on a slot machine, allowing us to select which word to put into the slots created by the syntax. (CE, 76)

It is hard to imagine a film that would be completely based in a paradigmatic, rather than syntagmatic, grammar, but it is surely in animation that the possibility is most likely. Fantasmagorie is Cubitt's exemplar of the graphic film as "it is a film within a hair's breadth of being governed by the paradigmatic code of the vector alone." (CE, 77)

There are no key frames in Fantasmagorie. The metamorphoses do not begin in a particular image (privileged instant) and resolve into another particular image. The movement of the line is never complete. Each frame is an any-instant-whatever. Deleuze's distinction between privileged instants and any-instants-whatever provides a background for Cubitt's categories of pixel, cut and vector. The most direct precursors for Cubitt's categories seem to be Pierce's increasingly influential concepts of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness (concepts also deployed by Deleuze in his Cinema books). Pixel corresponds to Firstness, or pure sensation, the referent itself, the Lacanian Real, prior to representation or signification. The cut corresponds to Secondness, the representation of the thing itself, the Lacanian Imaginary, the signified. The vector is Thirdness, the production of meaning, the Lacanian Symbolic, the signifier. The vector is not a representation, it

moves from the presentation of objects to the stimulation of concepts. The vector does not tell us what to expect: it requires us to think. In this way the vector brings us into the realm of the intellect and offers us the delight we take in the pursuit of meaning. (CE, 85)

Cubitt sees the vector as way out of the impasse of representation in a time when the world, as the site of representation's possible referents, has already been negated, lost behind (or within) the Baudrillardian hyperreal. If all is simulation, if the world has been transformed into data, there can be no representation.

The vectors's particular future-directed temporality addresses us no longer as termini but as media: as people who make sense, but only as nodes in interweaving trajectories of signification. It is no longer a matter of recognition, of deciphering what is already encoded. Rather it is a matter of reinterpreting, of adding a new spin to a trajectory that has not yet realized itself. The vector is the regime in which the temporality and the labour of making sense is paramount. If in the pixel we are engaged by an undifferentiated union with the visual, and in the cut by the subjection-objection pair, in the vector we confront the double presence of the screen image as at once object and image, such that what we normally expect to be true of the object — for example, that it possesses a single, discrete, and stable identity — is no longer the case. No longer pointing to an entity separate and opposed to us, but offering itself as a medium, the image becomes a cinematic sign. Like every sign, it implies the existence of other signs. To say of one of Cohl's lines that it "is" a flower, an elephant, or a house is inaccurate. On the one hand, it is only legible as referring to (conventional images of) flowers, elephants, and houses for brief moments in a trajectory that is never stable. On the other, it is always a line, a signifier, which is what gives it its transformative power. (CE, 91-2)

That graphical cinema found one of its clearest expressions early in the history of cinema with Fantasmagorie is no surprise. Cubitt radicalizes Manovich's myth of prodigal return. In Manovich, animation's triumphant return, which was marked by a return to manual artifice, has already occurred. For Cubitt, animation is yet to return, but its return is imminent and will be marked by an overthrow of the stupid tyrannies of representation and narrative. Thus Cubitt's engagement with animation also involves the seemingly inevitable return to the pro-cinematic. Here he extends Manovich's claims:

At some point in the near future when historians recognize that the photochemical cinema is a brief interlude in the history of the animated image, representation will become, like narrative, a subcode of interpretation rather than an essence of motion pictures. (CE, 97)


If we move from a lens- to a computer-based production of images, can there still be representations of the world? No. There will be no representations (and no world). Instead there will be vectors that move through representation in a process of endless becoming to produce concepts.

Cubitt also makes some claims regarding animators and authorship that I find provocative. I include them below as they seem to me profound and non-sensical in equal measure. They also, incidentally, bring to mind — or, rather, they seem to describe with an uncanny accuracy — Chris Landreth's Ryan (2004).

The secret consciousness of the vector is this human-mechanical hybrid. Hence we can no longer speak of the author as originator of the cartoon: instead we are confronted with the animator, no longer a subject of the social world, but an exile seeking asylum in the machine world from all demands external to the world itself. (CE, 83)


A Rabbit, a Goat, a Mosquito

In Jean Renoir's live-action feature film The Rules of the Game (1939) there is a scene in which a rabbit dies. Actually, many rabbits and many pheasants die in the film, mostly in the justly famous hunting scene. But there is one particular rabbit whose death is particularly vivid: it leaps into open meadow, is hit by a bullet, falls, twitches, lies still. So it is that single, particular rabbit — the one whose death is most real — with whom we are concerned. (But perhaps all slaughters are best narrativized as individual deaths.)

The hunting scene in The Rules of the Game brings to mind an equally accomplished and intense hunting scene from a roughly contemporaneous film, Bambi (1942). In Bambi, humans (and not just hunters, all humans) are evil and remain unseen. We see their encampment and their fire (which spreads apocalyptically to the forest in the film's last act) and we see and hear their bullets tearing up the forest. And we see their representatives, the demonic hunting dogs (the only creatures who do not talk in the film), attacking Bambi and his wife. But we see only one death, and that from a distance. (The nervous pheasant, whose panicked flight sets off the slaughter, falls out of the sky.) Otherwise, death is not depicted visually, but through the sound of gunshots and the occasional muffled thud. Still, death is heavy in the film, and traumatic. The film is, of course, notorious for the possibly traumatic effect the death of Bambi's mother has on child viewers. In some ways, hunting and animal death in The Rules of the Game is inverted in Bambi. The off-screen deaths of cartoon characters can pack an incredible wallop as they raise the spectre of symbolic (and actual) maternal death, while the on-screen death of an actual rabbit is likely to cause a much slighter psychic disturbance, even as it more directly raises a complex of moral issues.

The hunting scene in The Rules of the Game occurs roughly in the middle of the film and is a turning point. Up to that point, the film is largely concerned with character exposition, afterward it switches into an increasingly narrative mode. It also marks, if not a change in tone, a deepening of affect, an increase of tonal complexity. It foreshadows a scene (the story's climax) in which one of the human characters — the virtuous, innocent one — dies. As Vivian Sobchack points out in her essay "Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary," the human dies only in the film, while the rabbit dies in the film and in the world.

. . . the rabbit is not perceived by us solely as a character in the narrative. Rather, it is a real rabbit that we see die in the service of the narrative and for the fiction. The human character who dies, however, does so only in the fiction. Thus, insofar as we are talking about a classic film, even though they eventually survived the actor, both his character and the narrative were immediately survived by him. We cannot, however, say the same of the rabbit. (CK, 245)

In this essay, Sobchak is concerned with the ethics of documentary space, using representations of death as a kind of limit case. She establishes two categories: the ethics of making the image and the ethics of looking at the image. Both categories are concerned with the ontological status of the pro-filmic event.

(Ethics is, of course, now that we have dispensed with veracity, the primary concern of discourses of documentary representation. It is, at best, a secondary concern for the live-action feature, where ethics has been limited to the taken-for-granted ground for identity politics. We have yet to develop an ethics of the animated image, apart from issues related to the socialization of children. And an ethics of new media has, so far, been bogged down in a concern all other areas have deemed irrelevant: the veracity of the possibly-no-longer-indexical image.)

Our poor rabbit dies at least two deaths. The first death, and probably the only one to concern the rabbit, is its actual death in the world. We'll call this death pro-filmic. The second death is the one we see depicted onscreen. This death, or this representation, is filmic, or, keeping with Sobchak, cinematic. The man's death is limited to the filmic. It occurs solely in the diegesis of the fictional film. The rabbit's death exceeds the film's diegesis. It occurs within the film's diegesis as a fiction, within the real world as an actual event, within the pro-filmic as documentary and, finally, within the film itself as both fiction and documentary.

What is important to note here is that the knowledge that informs our distinction between the fate — and fatality — of the rabbit and character is both extracinematic and intertextual. On the one hand, the cinema-specific codes of representation are the same for both the real rabbit and irreal character, and each of their deaths serves a similar and interrelated function in the narrative, Nonetheless, despite these cinema-specific codes (for Renoir, a rigorous realism), a distinction is made between them. Indeed, the textual moment of the rabbit's death gains its particular force from an extracinematic and intertextual cultural knowledge that contextualizes and exceeds the representation's sign-function in the narrative. (CK, 245-6)

If I object to Sobchak's idiosyncratic use of the basic semiotic categories of icon / index / symbol (she seems to reserve "index" for documentary images), I agree with her conclusions.

The rabbit's death exceeds the narrative codes that communicate it. It ruptures and interrogates the boundaries (and license) of fictional representation and has a "ferocious reality" that the character's death does not. Indeed, it is taken as an indexical sign in an otherwise iconic / symbolic representation. That is, it functions to point beyond its function as a narrative representation to an extratextual and animate referent, executed not only by but for the representation. The rabbit's death violently, abruptly, punctuates the fictional space with documentary space. Nonfictional or documentary space is thus of a different order than fictional space that confines itself to the screen or, at most, extends offscreen into an unseen yet still imagined world. (CK, 247)

The rabbit is martyred to fiction. Its death ruptures the fictional space of the film — its diegesis — and allows the larger world and its concerns to bleed in and contaminate it.

While fiction is ruptured by documentary in The Rules of the Game, the opposite happens in Luis Bunuel's Land without Bread (1933). It is no coincidence that it also involves the killing of an animal. The film is a human geography documentary of the poverty-stricken inhabitants in a remote area of Spain. It is a parody of voice-of-God expository documentary, and — as parodies should — it follows its models closely. But the voice-over begins to stray from the necessary and expected humanist, objective point of view. It becomes playful: sadistic and biased. Voice-over is, of course, central to the expository documentary — but in some respects it is also a supplement: it is added in post-production and can be, with some expediency, completely re-written and re-recorded. It is the images themselves that carry the authority of documentary truth. But the filmmakers of Land without Bread find a way to make the images lie, to have fiction intrude into the documentary space.

We see a goat on the edge of a cliff. The voice-over tells us that the land is so treacherous, even sure-footed mountain goats often fall to their deaths. We see a puff of smoke in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, as if a rifle has been discharged, and we see the goat fall off the mountain. Even if we do not notice the smoke, it is clear that the goat did not slip: it simply topples.

The goat's death is unlikely to make us sad. We are more likely to laugh at the audacity of the filmmakers and the clumsily obvious manner in which they flaunt the basic rules of documentary representation (and morality). (But then Bunuel's celebration of cruelty — it is a distinguishing feature of his work — is, perhaps, always just beyond empathy's reach.)

(As I'm writing this, Lars von Trier's Mandalay is premiering at Cannes. The primary "controversy" concerning the film is that Nicole Kidman almost starred in it, but running a close second is the news that the killing of a goat — an old, sick goat we are assured — has been removed from the film in order that the film does not become about a megalomaniac Danish director who revels in goat-killing.)

Both The Rules of the Game and Land without Bread are satirical, and both deploy their ruptures to further their satirical ends. When fiction is ruptured by documentary, the fiction may become more concerned with the world: heavier, broader, deeper. When documentary is ruptured by fiction, the documentary is revealed to be the product of a particular subjectivity whose desires determine the shape of the world and the range of representations we might possibly draw from it. As our desires are horrible and petty and base, the result is likely to be comic.

The animated film exceeds both fiction and documentary. These categories no longer mean anything, apart from retaining a link to non-animated films. When we say that Winsor McCay's The Sinking of the Lusitania is an animated documentary we mean something like: if the same images were live-action, we would have a documentary.

The rabbit and the goat become, as they exceed their representational regimes, vectors. The rabbit begins as a fictional rabbit, but ends up really dead and only nominally within the fictional diegesis. The goat begins as a real, documentary goat but gets shot and tumbles into a fictional space of desire.

In Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001), there is (possibly) a mosquito that becomes a vector through its (possible) death. The film was shot and edited on mini-DV as live-action digital video, but was painted-over (rotoscoped) to look like, if not become, animation. In a literal way, both digital video and computer-aided animation are exactly the same technology and therefore must share the same representational possibilities: a pixel is a pixel, after all. But as representation is rhetorical as well as technical, it also depends on things such as genre in the determination of representational possibilities. If a digital image of, say, a tree appears to be indexical, there remains the strong possibility that it will be read as being an index and we will have received knowledge (whether true or not) of the existence of a particular tree in the world.

The narrative of Waking Life is propelled by questions about indeterminate or liminal states. The protagonist initially struggles to find out if he is awake or asleep and dreaming, later if he is asleep or dead. The film also has an indeterminate state as an extra-diegetical thematic concern: whether it — Waking Life — is essentially indexical (live-action: lens-based) or non-indexical (animation: drawn / painted). One easily discerns the live-action "below" the animation. The animation can seem like an embellishment that does not seriously compromise the live-action origins of the movie, like adding a filter to video to give it film grain. Sure, some things are added that would not have been on the live-action footage — lightning bolts and flashing lights — but these are obvious supplements: they even seem to float in front of the picture plane (lens-based concept), or to be the uppermost layer (digital painting concept). After all, Julie Delpy is still Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke is still Ethan Hawke.

In a segment titled "The Holy Moment" (the only segment, if I am not mistaken, to have a title) the protagonist floats into a movie a theatre and watches a film of two men talking about, of all things, Bazin and the ontology of the photographic image.

—Cinema, in its essence — well its about the reproduction of reality. Reality is actually reproduced. For him it's not like a story-telling medium. He feels that literature is better for telling a story. Even if you tell a joke, like this guy walks into a bar and he sees a dwarf. That works really well because you're imagining this guy and this dwarf and there's this imaginative aspect to it. But in film you don't have that because you're actually filming a specific guy in a specific bar with a specific dwarf of a specific height who looks a specific way. So for Bazin, what the ontology of film has to do with — which is also what photography has an ontology of, except that it has this dimension of time to it, which adds this greater realism — and so its about that guy at that moment in that space. And Bazin is a Christian, so he believes that God — he believes that reality and God are the same, so that what film is actually capturing is God incarnate, creating. At this very moment God is manifesting as this. And what film would capture if it were filming us now is God as this table and God as you and God looking how we look right now and God thinking what we're thinking because we're all God manifest in that sense.
—Mmm. Hmm.
—So film is actually a record of God, or of the face of God, or of the ever-changing face of God. You have a mosquito. Want me to get it for you?
—[Man slaps his own face.] I got it?
—Yeah, you got it.

The character's (flawed) precis of Bazin continues, moving from film as the face of God to a discussion of the holy moment (wherein one looks upon the face of God). The mosquito is an interruption in the discussion that is comical for a number of reasons. First, it simply brings an increasingly lofty, one-sided conversation back down to earth. Reinforcing this fall from the spiritually transcendent to the immanent everyday are the two faces: the face of God becomes the face that gets slapped.

The scene cuts between the protagonist sitting in the movie theatre and the film he is watching, which (until the final moments) is a single medium shot. The camera is hand-held, but relatively static. The mosquito lands on the far side of a head we see only in profile. Barring the insertion of a close-up, we have no way of actually seeing the mosquito. Even within the diegesis of the film-within-the-film, only the Bazin-discoursing character could possibly see the mosquito.

The previous paragraph recounts the scene as if it were part of a live-action, lens-based film. If Waking Life is essentially live-action with the animation merely a kind of stylistic supplement, a particular question arises: Did an actual mosquito exist in the pro-filmic world? If Waking Life is an animated film, the question becomes, if not nonsensical, irrelevant.

The difference in the ontology of the lens-based photographic image of live-action and the graphic possibly-digital image of animation lies at the level of the pro-filmic. But, following Bazin, questions concerning the ontology of images are wrapped up in questions of indexicality. In Waking Life, the mosquito is a vector, which, by raising questions about the ontological / indexical status of the film's representations, exceeds the film's diegesis. It seems to me that Waking Life inhabits an indeterminate, even liminal, realm in which we cannot say what is animated and what is not.

Of course, it has frequently been stated that this is the usual status of digital images. Generally, though, it seems that this uncertainty is resolved too patly. Both Manovich and Cubitt seem to assert that because digital images are not necessarily indexical, all of (digital) cinema has become animation. As Waking Life asserts — ironically through the use of computer animation — lens-based indexical representations have not been so easily eclipsed.


Surface and Line, Line and Letter

Philosopher Vilem Flusser, in a McLuhanesque gambit, divided the world of signs into lines and surfaces, with surfaces becoming ever more predominant over lines. The world of lines, of linear signs, is the world of the alphabet, of language as the printed word. It is a linear world. Each line is a series of points. " . . . lines are discourses of points, and each point is a symbol of something out there in the world (a "concept"). Therefore, the lines represent the world by projecting it as a series of successions, in the form of a process." (W, 21) Surfaces can, and often do, contain (incorporate) lines, but they do so in a way that makes the line something other than a linear process. TV screens, posters, illustrated magazines, photographs, paintings are all surfaces rather than lines. Both sign systems mean the world, though they, necessarily, mean it in different ways.

Until very recently, official Western thought has expressed itself much more in written lines than in surfaces. This fact is important. Written lines impose a specific structure on thought, in that they represent the world by means of a point sequence. This implies a "historical" being-in-the-world of those who read and write written lines. But, in addition, surfaces have always existed, and these also have represented the world. They impose a very different structure on thought in that they represent the world by means of static images. This implies an "unhistorical" being-in-the-world of those who make and read these surface images. Very recently, new channels for the articulation of thought have come about (e.g., films and TV), and official Western thought is taking increasing advantage of them. They impose a radically new structure on thought in that they represent the world by means of moving images. This implies a posthistorical being-in-the-world of those who make and read these moving images. In a sense, it may be said that these new channels incorporate the temporality of the written line into the picture, by lifting the historical time of written lines onto the level of the surface. (W, 25-26)

This division of signs into lines and surfaces gives us a powerful way to think about animation and the moving image (and in particular the unfortunately-named category of motion graphics) not bogged down in questions of photographic indexicality. In his writings, which include Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1984) and the collection Writings (2002), Flusser offers a conception of photography radically different from Bazin's ontology of the photographic image. He claims, for instance, that the apparent indexicality of the photograph is false (or perhaps merely irrelevant), thereby erasing any ontological distinction between lens-based and digital media.

. . . photographs are information intentionally produced from a swarm of isolated possibilities. Thus, photographs differ in principle from prehistoric images. Prehistoric images are worldviews (copies of the environment). Photographs are computed possibilities (models, projections onto the environment). This is the reason photographs should be considered posthistorical images. (W, 129)

Photographs are simply the first among the posthistorical images. In the case of photographs, the acquisition of the codes, in which the new consciousness articulates itself, is a more difficult task than in the case of more developed images, such as synthetic images. Two aspects of the photograph make it more difficult. First, photos resemble copies more than projections. At first glance, a photo of an airplane does not reveal that, just like a synthetic computer image, it signifies a possible airplane rather than a given one. Second, the photograph seems to be made by a photographer operating the apparatus, rather than by a software specialist programming the apparatus. The projecting and computing nature of the photograph is less evident than in synthetic images. Yet this is precisely why learning to photograph in the sense of a posthistorical projection would be extraordinarily emancipatory. (W,131)

Let this emancipation be called animation. Or, that which we have been calling animation, without precisely defining it, can perhaps now be characterized as the moving image genre best-suited to incorporating line into surface. The line-invested surface has the potential to produce imaginal thought, which seems to me roughly equivalent to Cubitt's vector. As Flusser states in his essay "Line and Surface" (1973), "imaginal thought is becoming capable of thinking concepts." (W, 30) As lines are incorporated into surfaces, images become discursive.

Two categories developed by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his Discours, figure (1971), line and letter, seem to me closely related to Flusser's surface and line, despite the fact they use "line" in roughly opposing ways. Where Flusser's line corresponds to the linearity of text-based discourse, Lyotard's line is a plastic, graphic line. Rather than opposing language and image, Lyotard sees them as complementary.

The letter is a closed invariant line; the line is the opening of the letter that is closed, perhaps, elsewhere or on the other side. Open the letter and you have image, scene, magic. Enclose the image and you have emblem, symbol, and letter.(RF, 268, translated by Rodowick)

The figural is the force that erodes the difference between line and letter. D. N. Rodowick explains why he finds the "nomadic concept" of the figural central to discussions of digital cinema in his brilliant book Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after New Media (2001).

Computer-generated and manipulated images are now commonplace, of course. But when these images began appearing in tv ads, music videos, and other venues, it was impossible not to be astonished by how fluidly text was spatialized, thus losing its uniform contours, fixed spacing, and linear sense, and how presumably space was "textualized"; that is, how the Euclidean solidity of the image was fragmented, rendered discontinuous, divisible, and liable to recombination in the most precise ways. Suddenly the image was becoming articulable, indeed discursive, like never before. (RF, 3)

So: Cubitt's vector, Flusser's imaginal thought, Lyotard / Rodowick's figural. Through these concepts, animation is now and will continue in becoming the driving force behind discovering the discursive possibilities of new media and the moving image.