A couple of weeks ago, I responded to an excellent post by Caroline Ruddell in which she asks ‘what of animation theory?’ I suggested that animation studies hasn’t cohered around any central questions of enquiry in the way Film Studies did and this might be a reason for the perceived aversion to, or even lack of, ‘animation theory’. My response was off-the-cuff, but since then I’ve continued to ponder these two suggestions regarding cohesion in, and aversion to, animation theory.
I do think it’s true that animation studies never coalesced around a single question, or questions, of enquiry in the way that early Film Studies did. To reduce things overly simplistically and teleologically, Film Studies ‘evolved’ from questions of ontology, to questions of reception, to questions of context: ‘what is film (and its relationship with reality)?’; ‘how does film have an effect on its viewers?’; ‘what is the (social, cultural, political, industrial) context in which film is made and received?’ That Animation Studies didn’t take a similar trajectory is perhaps because by the time it became established as an avenue of academic study Film Studies had already moved into a more diversified stage. By the time there was a critical mass of animation theory, theorists of the moving image had already accepted that pursuit of grand, singular Theory was relatively fruitless. So, as a result, we have the wonderful, mish-mash of approaches that make up the field of Animation Studies. This mishy-mashiness is also surely as much to do with the plurality of form that makes up ‘animation’. Film Studies’ focus was in part to do with the ontological singularity of the object of study (and the more recent displacement of said object by the advent of digital technology). The fact that ‘animation’ encompasses so many different techniques, styles and materials means that it would be hard to develop a Theory that covered everything from puppets to hand-drawn, from CGI to pixilation.
On to my second off-the-cuff comment of a few weeks ago – about an aversion to animation theory. I began to think about whether that was actually true and came to the conclusion that it really isn’t. Right now is an exciting time in Animation Studies, I think. Not least because academic presses seem to be increasingly open to publishing theoretically leaning books on the topic. Suzanne Buchan’s recent Pervasive Animation and Karen Beckman’s forthcoming Animating Film Theory are two edited collections that actively seek to widen and deepen the theoretical discourse around animation, while acknowledging the historical neglect, broadly speaking, of animation theory. Animating Film Theory points out how film theory all but ignored animation. This isn’t so hard to understand, if one thinks how animation throws such a spanner in so many theories of ‘film’. Both collections demonstrate the interdisciplinarity of approaches to theorising animation that Caroline mentioned in her post a few weeks ago. Recent monographs in animation studies also highlight the diversity of animation theorisation. Scott Buckatman’s The Poetics of Slumberland and Donald Crafton’s Shadow of a Mouse are at first glance books on animation history. A closer look, however, quickly reveals two insightful (and interdisciplinary) theoretical approaches to how animated images have come to make meaning.
So, what of animation theory? Alive and kicking (in many different, theoretically sophisticated directions), is what I would say.