Thomas Lamarre – The Anime Machine

anime-machineLamarre, Thomas.  The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  2009.
Publisher page

Let’s kick things off with a book that’s been with me since (if memory serves) about 2010.  Ah, the halcyon days of undergrad…  Lamarre’s media theory take on anime was one of those books that made a huge dent in my psyche, right up there with Condry’s Hip-Hop Japan or Abe’s Woman in the Dunes, and could be said to be one of the books that steered me toward academia as a life path.  At the time, I’d really only encountered a few narrative analyses and fan studies as the representatives of what anime scholarship could be, so such a radically different take as this really turned my brain inside-out.  Does it stand up to the test of time?  Find out below.

Lamarre’s book is divided into three main sections, tracking from the material and technological history of anime, though an analysis of what he deems the archetypal anime image composition, and into a close reading of Chobits that brings the technical- and art-historical frameworks into conversation with Lacanian psychoanalytics and Deleuzian deconstructionism.

The first two parts I can grok easily enough.  First, we take the animation stand and multiplanar animation — in which multiple celluloid sheets with images painted on them are stacked on top of each other and photographed from above — as foundational to the very ethos of anime itself.  Getting around Heidegger’s (and Paul Virilio’s) anxiety about the “technological condition,” Lamarre states that anime provides an underdetermined relation to the image, one that escapes the totalizing impulse and ballistic sensibility of the “cinemetic” image, whose effect of movement into depth parallels a subconscious desire to penetrate to the core of the world, the core of the Other, and establish a dominant gaze over it.  His use of “underdetermined” here follows French philosopher Gilbert Simondon (who also heavily influence Deleuze and Guattari), who saw the world essentially as “fields of underdetermination,” which established a set of possibilities and options, the outcome of which was always unknown until it actually individuated.  We can think here, therefore, about the anime cel as a field of underdetermination, and the act of compositing those cels as one individuation of their possibilities.  This is the potential of anime for Lamarre: when the medium is defined by image layers that slide across each other to create the illusion of movement, anything could emerge from the interstices between them.  Anime, in other words, folds alterity into its constitution.

In the second section, Lamarre unpacks this further to deal with the art historical question of image hierarchy.  He invokes the kind of exploded projection we see in an IKEA assembly manual as paradigmatic of the anime image.  This is the mode of composition, he argues, that most authentically captures the potential of the “animetic” (his term for the opposite of “cinemetic”) image to shift laterally and reveal something unexpected.  He invokes Anno Hideaki and the deconstructive impulses in his work to back up the claim that even at the level of the composited image, the force of multiplanarity can be felt.  As seems to be de rigeur  in anime scholarship in the first decade of the 2000s, Murakami Takashi’s superflat aesthetics are also brought in as a further example of a dehierarchized image field, one which repulses attempts at mastery through movement into depth and sidesteps instrumentality via lateral movement.  (Seriously, it feels like everyone was talking about Murakami around this time.  And now… poof!  Disappeared!)

But it’s the third section that kind of loses me.  Maybe part of it is that I don’t have the Deleuzian chops to really see what intervention Lamarre’s trying to make with a discussion of Chobits.  Or maybe it’s that Lacan has never done much for me.  The translator’s intro to Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter characterized Lacan as a cybernetic psychoanalyst (more on that book in another post), so I feel like I should like him, or at least understand him better, but much of psychoanalytic theory has always felt too reductive to me.  To Lamarre’s credit, he avoids that reductionist feel here by bringing in Deleuze (who instead always feels like his theory is spinning off in a million different directions at once), but I nevertheless have trouble with it.  Near as I can tell, this section attempts to push the previous discussion of anime aesthetics into the realm of narrative and character analysis.  He discusses how the narrative and comedic tropes of Chobits are constantly diverting any attempt to get to the “heart” of things, seemingly paralleling the imagistic tendency toward lateral movement.  He pushes this even to the level of character design, reading Chii’s pupil-less eyes as a flat field that push our gaze elsewhere rather than allowing us to dive into the depths of her character.  Deleuzian time images and action images come in, but I’ll be damned if I can figure that out.

So is the point here just that anime pushes all sorts of deep questioning to the side?  If we define anime’s aesthetic force as one that is constantly deflecting the eye, then it seems like a medium defined as self-effacing, one that avoids notice and avoids serious (deep) engagement with social issues.  This seems like a pessimistic/uncharitable view to take of the medium, and in fairness, I don’t think that’s what Lamarre is trying to do.  The best guess I can make is that he’s instead simply saying that anime always presents alternatives.  Alterity is built-in, and if there’s a problem that seems intractable (in what?  The image?  A relation to the world?  How far beyond anime does this stretch?), anime provides a space to think of ways around it, rather than through it.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of intriguing conference papers running with Lamarre’s multiplanar methodology in all sorts of interesting ways.  Taking the multiplanar paradigm beyond the texts themselves and into things like production strategies seems interesting, though I kind of wonder whether the concept’s portability actually just speaks to it being a really general synonym for alterity, and thus not all that earth-shattering.  Even saying that, though, the fact that this book made such waves in anime scholarship seems to suggest that we all need to be reminded occasionally to break out of the box.


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