Over the past few weeks Animation Studies 2.0 has explored the theme of animation and philosophy through posts by Deborah Levitt, Scott Birdwise, Carol MacGillivray, Robby Gilbert, and Bella Honess Roe. I had the privilege of curating this theme and, in the process, I was struck by the ways each post thinks animation or investigates how animation thinks, which is to say that they emphasize what animation does. Yet, I wonder what these posts do with and to animation and philosophy?
As is often the case in animation studies, I find the posts haunted by animation’s many definitions and descriptions. This hauntology[1], to adopt the Derridean phrase, characterizes the inconsistent, contradictory, or simply evolving presence of animation and its many forms. Given the when and where of one’s investigation into animation, the being of animation gains and discards different characteristics. What it is and is not at any given moment seems to haunt most analyses. For instance, how does animation’s “an-ontology,” as Levitt describes it, cohere with the photographic ontology of cel animation as described by Hannah Frank?[2] The answer to this question would seem to affect animation’s purchase on thinking and making multiple worlds (see Levitt’s post) and on animated cartoons expressing a “coming community” beyond-the-law (see Birdwise’s post). For Frank, film theory’s treatment of cel animation as lacking world-disclosing indexicality overlooks the photographic ontology of cel animation and therein the labor of its production. Does attention to the an-ontology of animation perpetuate similar errors? On the other hand, a forensic attention to medium specificity seems to diminish or disregard the political and ethical expressions that Levitt and Birdwise find in animation’s thinking. Is it too simple to treat this agonism as an unavoidable, unresolvable dialectic?
Carol MacGillivray’s post advances this inquiry by demonstrating how animation does not necessarily think in terms of screens and that screenless animation can reveal and disrupt screen-based, perceptual habits. Does this affirm the an-ontology description or does it shift animation’s ontology onto the temporal and spatial gaps, that Robby Gilbert contends are more fundamental to animation than any set of cartoon aesthetics?
Bella Honess Roe, in her post, turns to performance philosophy and acknowledges the basic ground of space and time, but states outright that “performance is a spectre that is present in all animation.” Isn’t the presence of this “spectre” a hauntological formulation? I suspect that Honess Roe would agree that performance philosophy does not resolve the contradictory presence or being of animation. And this leads me to perhaps what is most fun about considering animation’s ontology, which is that whenever a case is made for animation having a particular kind of being (even a non- or without- or plural-being), one can retort that that is merely an analysis of a particular kind of animation. This rhetorical move paradoxically critiques arguments about an-ontology by using the logic of an-ontology, or perhaps more accurately, hauntology. There is always some other definition or description of animation that exists as a potential that undoes and undermines whatever definition or description is currently under discussion. Is this ontological paradox merely rhetorical and conceptual? Is it grounded in any material technical practice? I suspect that it is grounded in technicity as such, but, when pushed, there is a technicity that grounds my thinking—namely, drawing and caricature.

Fig. 1. Vice as Animals from Sketchbook 1914, Eisenstein’s Early Drawings, Daniel Langlois Foundation.

Although Sergei Eisenstein primarily had early Disney animation in mind, his approach to animation is far-reaching and might be better described as advancing a myth of animation comparable to, but very different from, Bazin’s myth of total cinema [3]. The myth of animation includes bringing something to life, but Eisenstein also knew it as an effort to return to a primordial, essential form of life and possibility. In other words, the animated cartoon returns a viewer to a pre-logical state, to the realm of sensuous thought. Through this return the animated cartoon expresses “freedom from ossification” and “an ability to take on any form dynamically.” Eisenstein calls this quality of animation “plasmaticity”[4]. For Eisenstein, cartoon animation involves bridging divides that form in the individual that correspond to dichotomies prevalent in Western thought[5]. Christian divides between flesh and spirit and biological divides between individual organisms and different species are addressed by the transgressive, metaphorical, and paradoxical aspects of animated cartoons. Animated cartoons participate in a critique of modern categories, whether we think of them in terms of Latour’s hybrids or Haraway’s cyborgs.
The technical, material practice that seems to have had the greatest influence on Eisenstein’s thinking about animation is drawing and, therein, the capacity to fuse distinct entities and beings through caricature. This emphasis departs from theorists who emphasize the role of the multiplane camera or difference between frames[6]. The myth of animation that I find in Eisenstein has its roots in cartoon and caricature and montage-like combinations of signs, symbols, and bodies. Caricatures produce humor through incongruity and facilitate comprehension by overloading an image or figure with signifying icons, symbols, and indices. This creates a feeling that the image is revealing truth through a figure that is representationally false. This incongruous, conceptual overloading makes the figure highly readable and comic, but also on the verge of becoming. As a still image, it is caught in a transition and, therein, wants to be animated[7]. The hybridity and metalepses of cartoon animation grow out of its roots in drawing and caricature, which fuse together signs and overload figures with incongruous signs. But this overloading is not, strictly speaking, exclusive to caricature because signs and figures more generally can be loaded with any number of meanings. The meaning of a sign is not fixed; the stability of its presence relies on the equally unstable signs around it. This is the an-ontology that haunts technicity more generally and provides a groundless ground for animation.

Eric Herhuth is Assistant Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Tulane University. His research areas include animation and film studies, aesthetics and politics, and media and film theory. He has published in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Cinema Journal, animation: an interdisciplinary journal, and Theory & Event. He is also the author of Pixar and the Aesthetic Imagination: Animation, Storytelling, and Digital Culture (University of California Press, 2017).

[1] The foremost expert working at the intersection of Derridean philosophy and animation is Alan Cholodenko. Thus, I defer to his expertise on the topic. My post is a humble effort to consider how animation critiques presence in a Derridean fashion through its own unstable being. For a discussion of hauntology, see Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (New York: Routledge, 2006), 10. For a discussion of hauntology and popular media, see Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Washington: Zero Books, 2014).

[2] Hannah Frank, “Traces of the World: Cel Animation and Photography,” animation: an interdisciplinary journal 11.1 (2016): 32-33. For a fuller account of animation’s “an-ontology,” see Deborah Levitt, The Animatic Apparatus: Animation, Vitality, and the Futures of the Image (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2018). In relation to hauntology, I find intriguing Levitt’s comparison between the an-ontology of animation—which emerges through simulacral otherness, the decoupling of bodies/images from biological destiny/reality, and the dissolution of boundaries between spectator and screen—and the indexical reality effect of live-action cinema. Both the outgoing cinematic regime and the current animatic apparatus seem to haunt through contradictions of being and presence. The former through the mummified change or presence-in-absence of live-action, photo-indexical cinema, and the latter through the otherness of simulacra and the “virtualization of life.”

[3] André Bazin, “The Myth of Total Cinema,” What is Cinema, 2 volumes, trans./ed. Hugh Gray, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 23-27.

[4] Sergei Eisenstein: Disney, eds. Oksana Bulgakowa and Dietmar Hochmuth. Translated by Dustin Condren (Berlin: Potemkin Press, 2011), 15. Eisenstein also traces pre-logical, sensuous thought back to stages of totemism (46-9).

[5] It is worth noting the influence of Japanese theatre and visual representation on Eisenstein’s thought. I look forward to learning more about this. The most common place to find aspects of this in English is the excerpt from Eisenstein’s Film Form, “Beyond the Shot [The Cinematographic Principle and the ideogram],” Film Theory & Criticism, eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 8th edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 12-23.

[6] See Thomas Lamarre, The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), xxiv.

[7] Eric Herhuth, “Overloading, Incongruity, Animation: A Theory of Caricature and Caricatural Logic in Contemporary Media,” Theory & Event 21.3 (July 2018): 641.