Tricksters or fakes, assistants or ‘toons, they are exemplars of the coming community. — Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community
They are animations, disembodiments, pure spirits.— Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed
With few exceptions, commentators on Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “the coming community” — a conception of being-together beyond the judgement of the law — tend to draw from a canon of “serious” examples: Melville’s Bartleby, the “assistants” of Walser and Kafka, nymphs of mythical lore, and the cinematic strategies of Debord and Godard, among them. But as the citation above suggests, Agamben also considers ‘toons to be among those exemplary “whatever beings” in the community after judgement. The question is not if Agamben has developed a philosophy of animation — clearly he has not —, but rather: what does his philosophy offer to a theory of animation that allows us to reframe it as ontologically, politically and ethically linked to humanity’s conception of itself and its possibilities? In this way, Agamben’s thought on the “coming cartoon” can set into new light established insights into animation, such as those of Stanley Cavell.
To explain how ‘toons can be thought with Agamben, I will draw from the classic period of the Warner Bros. Road Runner series.[i] I suggest that in their anarchy such cartoons are ethical and political experiences before they are objects of entertainment or aesthetic (dis)interest.[ii] Following Agamben, cartoons give us a profane glimpse of the (post-human) life-time that remains after the law. Thus they belong to a theologico-political field related to questions of sovereignty, law and justice. More specifically, they reveal humanity’s essential “inoperativity”: the being-without telos or task that is the originary feature of the human condition. Indeed, in the parodic logic of comparison cartoons draw between their lives and ours, Agamben’s fundamental insight is recast: “Because human beings neither are nor have to be any essence, any nature, or any specific destiny, their condition is the most empty and the most insubstantial of all” (2000: 94-5).
While Agamben is far from systematic in his deployment of the cartoon, the instances where such figures appear are nevertheless significant: they reveal a comic side of his messianic philosophy that critics of his Homo Sacer series often miss. Indeed, the ‘toon can be seen as a positive counter-figure to the debased existence of bare life: cartoons, one could say, are “beyond human rights” in both their ontological and ethical (in)existence.[iii] Like Walter Benjamin before him, who saw in Mickey Mouse a “creaturely life” adapted to the contradictions of industrial capitalism, Agamben focuses on the notion of “experience” in cartoons — how we recognize in them our own distorted form of life within consumer capitalism. The crucial insight we glean from Agamben turns on how ‘toons stage in parodic form the encounter between the animal and the human, the body and language as a relation between a condition of law and lawlessness, knowledge and ignorance/innocence. In this light, ‘toons are exemplary creatures of playful (non-)knowledge.
Considering the “destruction” of communicable experience in Infancy and History, Agamben draws on the image of “those cartoon characters from our childhood who can walk on thin air as long as they do not notice it; once they realize, once they experience this, they are bound to fall” (1993: 16). Agamben has in mind Wile E. Coyote, that tragicomic ‘toon who endlessly hunts the eponymous bird. Through a series of gags based around principles of difference and repetition, he will inevitably be destroyed by racing over the edge of a cliff. Of course, as an infinitely destroyable ‘toon, he will reemerge unharmed for yet another Sisyphean task. However, as a necessary condition of the fall, he runs, innocently and ignorantly, as Agamben notes, over thin air (fig. 2). In this suspended moment, our hero has left behind the natural laws of physics for “an alternative universe of unnatural laws” (Bukatman 2014: 302). The difference between our laws and cartoon laws, Stanley Cavell observes, leads to ontological anarchy, in which “we are uncertain when or to what extent our laws and limits do and do not apply (which suggests that there are no real laws at all)” (1979: 170). At the same time, this lawlessness is a central, repetitive trope of the gag, and thus a site of both ritual and play.
Suspended in limbo, the coyote is simultaneously preoccupied with his task and in a state of ignorance. He thus resembles the creatures of Robert Walser, who display a “cartoon-style thoughtlessness and minute scrupulousness” (Agamben 1993: 6-7). The crucial dimension leading to the coyote’s fall in this world of “cartoon physics” is his dawning consciousness of his condition. Cartoon physics and metaphysics, the law of gravity and a state of knowledge (a loss of innocence), then, coincide in this hesitation before the void. “The topos of the hesitation,” Cavell aptly notes, “suggests that what puts gravity into effect is a consciousness of it” (1979: 170). In this parodic display of profound human self-awareness, the coyote ceremoniously exhibits his knowledge of his pathetic condition for the audience via the direct address of a look, gesture, or sign (e.g. see fig. 3).[iv] After the fall, it is his comic immortality that both redeems his serialized existence in ignorance of the law and that dooms him to endless repetition and predictable punishment, when the very law of gravity returns with his catastrophic experience of self-consciousness.[v]
I want to conclude by quickly turning to another example that takes up the relationship between ignorance (or innocence) and the law. In The Open: Man and Animal, Agamben analyzes an illustration of “the righteous” at the end of history which he found in a thirteenth-century Ambrosian Bible (fig. 4). This messianic group is attending a banquet on “the last day” where they will feast upon the theriomorphous beings representative of the law, the great beasts Leviathan and Behemoth. Of interest to us here is the fact that these “representatives of concluded humanity” are theriocephalus: they possess human bodies with animal heads (Agamben 2003: 2). Agamben suggests that “on the last day, the relations between animals and men will take on a new form, and that man himself will be reconciled with his animal nature” (3). This implies a “great ignorance” on the part of those beyond historical identity and tasks to perform. Drawing from Agamben’s Coming Community, “these beings have left the world of guilt and justice behind them” (1993: 6). In limbo, these “remnants” are ignorantly and innocently oblivious to judgement. Thus the parodic and comic dimension of humanity comes to full light.[vi]
Agamben, Giorgio (1993). Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron. London and New York: Verso.
Agamben, Giorgio (1993). The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Agamben, Giorgio (2000). Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Agamben, Giorgio (2003). The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Bukatman, Scott (2014). “Some Observations Pertaining to Cartoon Physics; or, The Cartoon Cat in the Machine” in Beckman, Karen (ed.), Animating Film Theory. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 301-316.
Cavell, Stanley (1979). The World Viewed. Enlarged Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Scott Birdwise is a PhD Candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at York University. His dissertation is on the work of Humphrey Jennings analyzed through the lens of Surrealism and biopolitics. He has published essays and book chapters on various aspects of experimental film, documentary media, animation, and the Canadian horror film. He also performs in the post-hardcore group HUMANITIES.
[i] But these observations, I hope, can be extended and reworked for other examples as well.
[ii] See Agamben, “Notes on Gesture” in Means Without End.
[iii] See the chapter “Beyond Human Rights” in Means Without End.
[iv] Is the moment when the coyote realizes he is walking on air and looks directly at the audience akin to the direct address of the porn star as Agamben understands it?
[v] We can go further and suggest that when the coyote finally falls from the air into the environment he is returning to an undifferentiated state with it, given that the cartoon figure and the cartoon world/environment are ultimately of the same ontological substance. This prompts the idea that cartoon characters can be radically immanent to or radically separate from, that is, transcendental to, their world. What Agamben understands as ignorance and Cavell calls consciousness may be decisive in determining a character’s immanence or transcendence to their world. Thus the coyote is at peak transcendence of his world when he walks on thin air, and, very close to this, at peak immanence when he finally comes crashing into it via the laws of gravity closing in upon consciousness.
[vi] Perhaps this takes us back to the cartoon coyote, prompting a provocation: what if the coyote were to actually catch the road runner? Would he have a moment beyond time and judgement, comparable to the messianic dinner where the animal-men eat the creatures of the law? However, remaining in the end time is not an achievement of decisive action. These creatures of non-knowledge would feast (or play) not only on the road runner but also on the very law of cartoon (meta)physics itself.