Animated Things, Agency, and the Brave Little Toaster

I’d been anxiously awaiting, for some time now, the publication of Mel Y. Chen’s book Animacies, the newest addition to the Perverse Modernities series from Duke University Press. In the book, Chen discusses the idea of “animacy” as it relates to race, dis/ability, queerness, the human/animal divide, and a whole host of other topics, and manages to come up with some pretty wonderful stuff in terms of theory. In becoming excited about the book, I was thinking through some of the reasons why the topic of animacy seems so exciting to me and my work (other than, well, animacy is, in some ways, excitement itself).

A very common plot device in children’s literature is less-than-animated things becoming animated. You know the drill: “really useful” engines, self-aware appliances, talking animals. Even the idea of the dead becoming re-animated comes from folklore and fairy tales we, in the current moment, often associate with youth. The granddaddy of all children’s literature animacies, though, is toys coming to life.

As I’m trying to wrap up a project on gendered racializations and deviance in a couple of LGBTQ teen novels, I’ve begun thinking how I might put Chen’s work in conversation with the wealth of children’s texts that feature toys “coming to life” as well as other work on similar themes. (I’m thinking of Ngai’s racialized affect of “animatedness” in Ugly Feelings, Halberstam’s work on “Pixarvolt” films, and the question of “what it’s like to be a thing” that Bogost asks in Alien Phenomenology.) I’m particularly interested in the idea of toys becoming animated (as opposed to being always-already animated, and being really good at hiding it, à la Toy Story). What are the implications of that process? Especially since that process usually involves a great deal of control from a human (child) actor?

Toys are also fun to think about in children’s literature, because they often allow for more free expressions of the divisions we think of as so natural in humans, gender in particular. Toys are for playing with; when we tell stories about toys, we are also allowed to play with our notions of gender, race, and class in ways we often can’t in stories about people. (Of course, it’s hard to think about a pile of alphabet blocks as having a race, gender, or sexuality.) Take for example, the familiar Mrs. Nesbitt scene from Toy Story. Even among such profoundly gendered toys as Buzz and Woody, Buzz is naturally able to take up the post of Mrs. Nesbitt under the care of Andy’s sister. Buzz in drag is able to believably become Mrs. Nesbitt at his tea party in a way that a human child would never be able to. Even though Woody polices Buzz back into his “real” gender, Buzz, for a time, becomes Mrs. Nesbitt so much that he refuses to re-become Buzz.

I…am Mrs. Nesbitt!

Although they’re not actually toys, we find the same sorts of things going on in one of my childhood favorites: the film for The Brave Little Toaster. (Did you know that the title character is gendered as female?) Based on a novella by Thomas Disch, the film traces the attempts of five household appliances–a lamp, a vacuum, a radio, an electric blanket, and, of course, a toaster oven–as they leave the summer cabin where they’ve been abandoned to find “the Master.” The implications of their animation are, I think, interesting, so bear with me as I hash out a few ideas.

Even though the toaster and her friends are “animated,” it’s difficult to say whether they have anything that we could call “agency.” As a fan of Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety, the concept of agency itself is to me a little questionable, or at least blurry. But the appliances definitely operate within a framework in which their “lives” are bound up in the idea of serving the “Master”–their whole harrowing adventure is a quest to get back to where they belong: operating the functions they were intended to serve for the Master. There’s all sorts of Marxist and/or theological implications there, which I won’t explore in depth. I’ll just point them out and suggest that we see the same things happening when toys become animated. Toys are sometimes particularly manipulated by the people who own them, even in their animation–their ability to become animated is bound up in the will of the human agent. I’ll just insert the caution of presuming to know “what’s best” for the toys and the appliances–in the same way that Mahmood cautions against placing our own ideas of agency on others.

Toaster is not amused at your presumption that she has absolutely no agency.

I think, too, there are ways we can read Ngai’s concept of animatedness into The Brave Little Toaster. According to Ngai:

On one hand, animatedness points to restrictions placed on spontaneous movement and activity; in Modern Times [Charlie Chaplin film], for example, it emerges from the exclusion of all bodily motion apart from the one assigned to the assembly-line worker. On the other hand, the affect can also be read as highlighting the elasticity of the body being animated…*

Using this framework, I think we can point to the ways in which these appliances can usurp their “intended” functions and do something different. For example, Blanky is intended to be a warm covering for the Master’s body. Her “spontaneous movement and activity” is  particularly limited by the way she’s allowed to function when in the presence of the Master: When people are around, her animacy completely disappears (at least in theory). However, when the appliances are trekking through the woods, Blanky’s body is able to become something else—a tent for her friends. This kind of purposeful rescrambling reminds me of José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of “disidentification,” taking a dominant ideology and rearranging it to suit one’s own needs.

Ngai also points to the ways in which animatedness is racialized–ethnic and racial difference is often read through an exaggeration of emotive expression. I don’t think I’d be going too far out on a limb to say that the radio is racialized in the film–he “sings” Tutti Frutti at the beginning of the film, for example. For a while, one of the top-rated comments on the Youtube clip of “It’s a B-Movie” was something to the effect of “lol the radio is so gangster at 2:19.” Even more fascinating, in the context of Ngai’s work, then, is the fact that the radio has no face. His animatedness is pushed only through his vocal inflection. I wonder what we can say about the ways his animatedness is fixed. He is certainly unable to use his body in particularly expressive ways.

Anyway, this is the direction I’m starting to look at and think about–the ways that animacy and, particularly, the process of becoming animated, functions for toys in children’s books. I’m interested in looking at the ways that these things affect our conceptions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and power in general. I may or may not be placing some of my thoughts on these things here, but I just thought I’d share the things that have been bouncing around in my head for the past month or so.

*Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambrige: Harvard University Press, 2004), 100.

The Stories That Tell Us Who We Are

One of the best classes I’ve ever taken was a literature class my senior year of high school with an amazing teacher and only one other student. The three of us read aloud, had deep and incredibly meaningful conversations, laughed a lot, cried a bit, and I even passed out once. (There was some conversation about vivisection, I’m pretty squeamish, you get the picture.)

One of the projects we did in that class was identifying the “stories that tell us who we are.” I’ve referenced this idea before, and it continues to haunt me. There’s something interesting about the idea of a story being able to read us into being. The quote that I published just before this suggests that giving people back their stories is ultimate the most humanizing thing we can do. I know that the stories we cherish and the stories we live are not one and the same. But they do matter, and I do believe that they have effects on each other.

Sara Ahmed, in The Promise of Happiness, has stated, “Every writer is first a reader, and what we read matters” (19).* I cannot agree more wholeheartedly. I have been thinking recently about the fact that I have many, many books in the room where I live and do much of my work. These are books that I have made a conscious effort to surround myself with, that I have decided to draw near to myself. Ahmed goes on to qualify her work by stating that she considers herself mostly a reader of queer, feminist, and antiracist books. I, too, choose to surround myself by books–stories–with these qualities (although some of my other work involves finding the ways in which some stories fail to make those claims in one way or another). I choose to make stories part of my politics.

Ahmed has also written elsewhere, in Queer Phenomenology about the ways that the objects we surround ourselves by, that we draw towards ourselves, help us orientate ourselves. I use the books, the (frequently queer, feminist, and antiracist) objects that I have chosen to draw near to myself, to orientate myself. In a way, the stories I choose to keep at hand tell me who I am. Particularly, they orientate me. They tell me who I am in relation to the spaces I find myself in. I keep stories of critical whiteness and queer failures around me, because they tell me how I can occupy the spaces I do. I reach out to “touch” these stories, so that I can also tell my own story and understand it. So I can, to use the words of Francesca Lia Block, be touched and touch others.

I think there’s something to be said here for considering reading in this way. How do “the stories that tell us who we are” orientate us? Why do we choose to draw some stories near to us (figuratively or literally)? Why do some stories affect us more than others? How do we “touch” stories and how do we then use stories to “touch”? Stories matter.

I want to keep asking and answering these questions. I’m thinking this might become a major project (…do I smell a thesis?…): considering reading (especially of children’s literature, but that’s just because that’s where I like to think) from the point of view of affect theory and phenomenology. But to begin with, I want to continue exploring the stories that tell me who I am. I’ve already told you about one: “The Owl and the Pussy-cat.” I want to tell you about nine more–ten total. As I choose to focus on children’s literature, and because I can honestly say that most of the “stories that tell me who I am” are books for young people, many of these will be children’s or YA books. But not entirely.

So, stay tuned for installments of the stories that tell me who I am. I want to tell you why I have gathered them toward me–why I am orientated toward them.

I also think this is a fascinating question for anyone. What are the stories that tell you who you are? What stories do you choose to keep at hand? I want to know.

*Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

‎If we think with and through orientation we might allow the moments of disorientation to gather, almost as if they are bodies around a different table. We might, in the gathering, face a different way. Queer objects might take us to the very limits of social gathering, even when they still gather us around, even when they still lead us to gather at a table. Indeed, to live out a politics of disorientation might be to sustain wonder about the very forms of social gathering.

Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology