The Animatic Apparatus

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Cover image: Gabriella Nicole Padilla

In The Animatic Apparatus, Deborah Levitt takes us on a tour through theories and incarnations of artificial life from the early 19th century through contemporary anime and emerging media.  She exposes how the extraordinary new practices and radical objects of simulation and animation are today transforming our neoliberal-biopolitical “culture of life.” Imagining the potential futures of vital forms, she offers a new concept and ethics of animatic life. 

Early Praise for the Animatic Apparatus

"Dazzling and fearless...Levitt finds animation to be the key not only to modelling the contemporary condition but also to formulating an ethical relation to it. Animation offers nothing less than a toolkit for new assembling of lives upon the active void of contemporary media." - Thomas Lamarre, professor, author of The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation

"With subtlety and élan, Levitt compellingly animates an historical journey with dolls, puppets, automata, replicants and artificial life to secure the case for “an-ontology...Levitt’s inspired pursuit of a mediology of technology and metaphysics demonstrates that whatever we are, our emergence is bound up with the simulacrum, and that animation is at least as real as the real itself.” - Jonathan Beller, professor, author of The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle.

"What if Mamoru Oshii’s 2004 anime Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is not just a midnight cult film, but the secret template for nearly all of 21st century technoculture? In The Animatic Apparatus, Deborah Levitt convincingly argues that this is actually the case." - Steven Shaviro, DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University.


The emergence of animation as the dominant medium of our time coincides with novel developments in the biological sciences that open possibilities for producing living beings, as well as with mutations in those discourses and practices around life currently framed as “biopolitics.” The coalescence of these transformations marks our cultural moment: While at first these might appear as disjunct cultural fields with no causal and little conceptual relation, understanding the link between Dolly the cloned sheep and her progeny (metaphorically speaking) and the multimedial bodies of Avatar is a key to understanding the time in which we live. Today, the horizon of possibilities of simulation in both art and science—from cartoons and the animatic effects of CGI to the various dreamt and incarnate potentials of biological production—are shifting the reigning cultural paradigms of life in significant ways, moving away from questions about ontology, category, and being to ones of appearance, metamorphosis, and affect. I call our time the age of the animatic apparatus.

Despite the more apparently radical specter of, for example, a cloned human being, the most important sites for transformations in concepts and practices of life are to be found in our more everyday experiences, in, for example, our ingestions of pharmaceuticals of all kinds and our auto-monitoring of our vital statistics with phones, watches, and fitness trackers. In particular, it is at the spectator-screen nexus, at the site of our interactions with images, that we can see many of the crucial dimensions of this shift take place. And as I’ve already begun to suggest, the rise of animation and simulation, that is, their move from the margins to the very center of cultural production, has produced a key dimension of this shift, releasing images from actual and perceived ties to a real world as living bodies are increasingly untethered from determinations of biological vocation or destiny.

In this book, I address these two characteristics of the contemporary moment—one revolving around transformations in the status of images and the other around transformations in the status of “life,” that is, in how we conceive, experience, and produce forms of vitality. These two are mutually intertwined. In fact, each can be properly seen only when viewed in relation with the other.

Life Image

 A glance at the news on almost any given day leaves little doubt that we live now in a culture obsessed with the terms of life. From debates around abortion and euthanasia to cloning and the patenting of living organisms, the status and limits of life are everywhere at issue. In a much-quoted statement, Giorgio Agamben remarks that the concept, life, “never gets defined as such,” but that “everything happens as if, in our culture, life were what cannot be defined, yet, precisely for this reason, must be ceaselessly articulated and divided” (Agamben 2004, 13). Defined, articulated, divided—but also, as we will see, produced, reproduced, engineered, made.

What I will investigate here is what we might call the mediology of life and the life of media,1  that is, how new forms of life and modes of vitality emerge at the spectator-screen intersection as this transforms over time. I will engage the questions raised through the life-image nexus via the concepts of animation and the animatic apparatus. The noun forms of “life” and “animation” are close to synonymous. But the verb forms have different connotations. While to live means to be alive or to have life, to animate means to endow with life; it refers to a process of making vital. On one hand, it may mean in a literal sense “to give life to,” “vivify,” “quicken.” On the other, it may mean to represent as alive, to give the appearance or illusion of life. While these definitions of animation have conventionally been regarded as separate, with the first associated most closely with the natural world and the second with art, there’s always been a kind of slipperiness that haunts the usage of the term, a slippage from art to life and back again. In the animatic apparatus, however, these converge, as life becomes not a property that one has, or doesn’t, but a site for intervention, production, poiesis .

Mamoru Oshii’s 2004 anime film, Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2, indexes these changes. It is a kind of philosophical treatise on the animatic apparatus—on the ways of the animate and the inanimate; on the modes of humans, machines, and animals; on the historical discourses on the mechanical and the vital. Set in 2032, in a world where variously modified humans interact with cyborgs and fully artificial entities, the plot unfolds as an action-genre narrative in which an elite anti-cyber terrorism unit investigates a series of mysterious deaths: High-tech sex dolls are going berserk, killing first their owners and then themselves. While the plot is interesting for the manner in which it reconfigures some of the now conventional tropes of the science fiction narrative, what is special about this work is its intervention into rethinking artificial life and its development of an animatic aesthetics that privileges affect—that is, subtle forms of visceral and emotional response—over both narrative and representation.

Innocence is a kind of anti-Pinocchio tale. Its artificial creatures don’t want to become real girls and boys. They don’t want to be real, and they certainly don’t want to be human. The film stages a critique of anthropocentric humanism and ontological hierarchy. In fact, it consistently points to the an-ontology of the animatic apparatus. It is never about models and copies, but rather about simulacra that open new territories of feeling and thought.

Automata, puppets, dolls, cyborgs—all artifacts of a kind of artificed life—are central both to the history of thinking artificial life and to my analysis of animatic forms of life here. In this book, I use Oshii’s film—along with various other texts and cultural phenomena from Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 romantic tale, “On the Marionette Theater,” to celebrity plastic surgeries—as a machine for thinking the contemporary moment and the transformations that occur in between life and images. An important feature of what follows is the interplay between the concept of the animatic apparatus as a dispositif, that is, as a kind of organizing mechanics for contemporary culture, and the notion of an animatic apparatus as it pertains to (a very broadly conceived version of) moving-image animation. This swerve back and forth across scales and senses of animation provides important insights into our contemporary Umwelten, our life worlds, and into the qualitative difference of our cultural moment, those tendencies whose critical mass engenders a change in kind and not merely in degree. 

I call the methodology of this work “media ethology.” In its basic form, ethology is a subdiscipline of biology. It is the science of animal behavior. It focuses on what animals do, on how they act. Ethologists will often look at a particular behavior and analyze its function across various species, rather than focusing on a single species. We can say that ethology is an inquiry into the how —rather than the who —of things. Jakob von Uexküll, an ethologist of the early twentieth century, looked at how species’ perceptual systems interact with their environments to produce very different kinds of Umwelten —lifeworlds—in each case. A key feature of this formulation is that perception and world are co-constitutive. Here, I am concerned with encounter between the human perceptual system and its media environment at particular moments in time––and with the kinds of selves, lives, and worlds that are produced in this conjunction. But of course, this is not a work of biological anthropology or cognitive science or perhaps even of media studies, strictu sensu. My focus here is on the interactions among the material structures of moving-image production, the always changing human perceptual apparatus, and the set of cultural assumptions and epistemologies that frame and structure the modes of experience and forms of life generated at the intersection of materialities of communication and perception. In other words, media ethology is a consideration of how we make sense (meaning) of sense (sensation) as these emerge together—and constitute one another—at the spectator-screen nexus. While inextricably bound to material structures of both media and perception, this nexus is as much a phantasmatic—even a hallucinatory—domain as a material one. And it is precisely here that we find new forms of life and modes of vitality emerging.