honeyland and alienation — a cartoon rhapsody
Múm’s video for Rhubarbidoo (off Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy, their latest album) is one of the most re-enchanting videos that I’ve seen for a long time. If, as Max Weber has argued, Enlightenment rationalization, especially as it manifests itself in the bureaucratized capitalism of Western society, results in a disenchanted world where we are locked in an “iron cage” of social alienation and meaningless production, surely the 20th-century fascination with fantasy, science fiction, and the imaginative worlds brought to life by animation effectively functions as a kind of antidote. Rhubarbidoo is the work of Jason Malcolm Brown and Aya Yamasaki Brown, a pair of illustrator/animators who seem to specialize in re-enchantment. Their Overture project is just as otherworldly and beautiful as Rhubarbidoo and also foregrounds a represented natural space inhabited by creatures that are not of this world and yet, in their alien guises, somehow end up appearing as natural as nature itself.
Early 20th-century animation is rife with the idea of bringing things to life — not only inanimate objects like household objects or urban spaces, but also nature itself in a special kind of re-animation where life is brought back to life. Disney’s 1932 cartoon Flowers and Trees is a perfect example of this type of animation. It seems fair to wonder whether or not the deep fascination with nature evinced in these early animations is actually symptom of a society that is rapidly becoming so urbanized and industrialized that direct contact with the natural world has become a thing of the past. In this case the ability of animation to bring this world to life as ‘second nature’ is deeply ironic since it’s an artifact of the industrial revolution — the toothed-gear — that allows for the existence of the stop-motion technique in the first place. There are more sophisticated readings of this dynamic that are possible as well, of course. Marx would probably say that what we see when we see cups and saucers singing in Disney animation is the voice of alienated labor expressing itself in another register; the Adorno and Horkheimer of Dialectic of Enlightenment, on the other hand, might view the re-animation of nature as a kind of mystificatory screen that serves to block the fact that the animistic stage of society is long since dead and instead there is only the fact of nature as a purely objectified resource for human exploitation (including the pleasurable exploitation of nature in its cartoon form).
MGM’s Honeyland is a fantastic case study for the idea that animation that seems to be about natural space is actually about the social unconscious that’s at work behind the scenes. The cartoon begins as a kind of pastoral idyll; the bee society is figured as a classic rural community with an economy based on cultivation and gathering. By the middle of the 1850s, however, the mechanization of agriculture had already started in the United States — the McCormick reaper, the threshing machine, and a practical mowing machine were all in use well before even the invention of the horse-drawn combine in the 1880s. By 1935, when Honeyland was made, agriculture in the U.S. was, for all practical purposes, fully industrialized. The kind of rural life envisioned in the cartoon — a life of pleasant labor and natural bounty — was already nothing but a nostalgic fantasy. This nostalgic fantasy, however, can’t maintain itself and soon we’re introduced to a second fantasy — the hive as happy factory. At this point the (worker) bees are still depicted as deeply content, and they obviously have a large amount of autonomy and free time for pleasure. It’s toward the end of the cartoon, when the spider attacks, that the social unconscious reveals itself in a manner that’s a bit more sinister. What started off as a pastoral idyll has now devolved into industrialized militarism — the bees are controlled en masse via the electronic call of the centralized public announcement system and form themselves into single living klaxon within which all individuation has completely disappeared. This may seem like a stretch, but perhaps it’s not as much of a stretch if you consider that the rationalization of industrial production has its roots in the standardized manufacture of interchangeable rifle parts.
All of these anxieties about the role of human agency within the highly commercialized and industrialized landscape that we’ve erected around ourselves and come to inhabit are at the forefront of this brilliant montage that combines scenes from the Fleischer Studio’s 1939 animated version of Gulliver’s Travels and stock footage of the construction of what I think must be the World Trade Center buildings. The way in which Rockwell’s video for Beholden juxtaposes the Lilliputians with scenes of the construction of the WTC raises the question of whether or not we have, in fact, created something that we can’t control. The image at the end of the video is the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 treatise, Leviathan, which argues for the total control of (a willing) society by an absolute sovereign. Ending the video with this image makes clear that the question being raised is one of control and sovereignty; as a society we may have the ability to construct wonders, but in the end isn’t it those wonders that control us? Clearly there is another version of Weber’s iron cage at work here.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to subscribe to the view that somehow all attempts to re-enchant the world are, in the final analysis, nothing but an empty compensation for the fact that the disenchantment of the world we know has been made complete. There are always gaps and fissures where enchantment can happen, despite the pessimism of theorists like Weber and Adorno. The excess in homo ludens will always escape, at least partially, the clasp of the iron cage. The force of play and invention, the possibility to explore and investigate new social potentialities and possibilities, is at least as much of a feature of any creative work as our inability to escape the social unconscious that must inform it in at least some way. The playful space of vegetable fantasy in Rhubarbidoo is one form that this type of exploration may take, but another form that may be more directly useful for raising questions about the type of society that we might someday want to become can be found in lengthier works of animated fantasy and speculative fiction. Although it’s not a particularly incisive film when it comes to unpacking the deep-seated contradictions of society as we know it, René Laloux’s 1973 film Fantastic Planet does a remarkable job of thematizing the human propensity to resist totalizing systems of control, while at the same expressing the force of the imagination at play in the form of the wild and surreal images that explode across the alien landscape presented in the film.
This video for Múm’s song “They Made Frogs Smoke ’til They Exploded” is by Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, and it embodies the idea of play in deeply interesting ways. Firstly, the video is about child’s play and as such is as much about violently exploratory creative destruction as it is about the wonder of discovery. Childhood feelings of powerlessness — of literally being overcome and torn apart by overwhelming emotional states — are expressed through images of disembodied limbs, bodies being opened up and bleeding, and animals that are both menacing and at the same time objects to be cut open and destroyed. The play expressed in the first part of the video is dark and indicates thetransference and acting out of violent emotions onto a creative stage that’s filled with blood and crumpled paper. And yet, as with all childhood imaginings, the cat that loses its head is able to be magically stitched back together and return to life. The crux of this video, for me, is the sequence with the child holding up the drawing of a swan. The image of the swan is filled with swathes of brilliant color at the same moment at the child’s teeth fall out, precipitating a full-scalerain of teeth. The dream of teeth falling out is, of course, classically supposed to indicate a fear of the loss of control. And yet, at the same time, the falling out of baby teeth is one marker of our entry into adulthood. In this sequence the creative and wild imagination of childhood, including all of the horrors that come along with it, is represented as the necessary basis for the move to aesthetic maturity. After this scene the types of creative images that appear are much more benign — flowers emerging from the swan’s mouth, leaves filling the soul-space of a child, and paper that turns into butterflies that fly away. Perhaps the most delightful aspect of this video is the use of common classroom materials — those things we mostassociate with childhood and its attendant confusions and power struggles — as the medium through which the question of childhood imagination is realized. It may be the case that as a whole our society has veered far from any real contact and understanding with nature — we may have become too good at making frogs explode — but there’s a second nature at work in all of these videos, a second nature that demands a space for play and exhibits an irrepressible desire to resist the final isolation of total alienation.
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Tags: Adorno, alienated labor, alienation, American farming, animation, Aya Yamasaki Brown, bee society, Beholden, capitalism, cartoons, childhood, consumerism, creation, creative destruction, Dialectic of Enlightenment, disenchantment, Disney, Enlightenment, Enlightenment thought, exploration, Fantastic Planet, fantasy, Flowers and Trees, Gulliver's Travels, hive as factory, homo ludens, Honeyland, Horkheimer, imagination, industrial militarism, industrialism, industrialization of American Farming, Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, invention, iron cage, Jason Malcolm Brown, Lilliputians, Max Weber, Múm, montage, natural world, nature, play, re-enchantment, Rhubarbidoo, Rockwell, science fiction, social control, social unconscious, They Made Frogs Smoke 'til They Exploded, totalizing systems of control