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Teri Silvio


Animation: The New Performance?

From the 1950s through the 1990s, the trope of performance was elaborated across a range of
academic disciplines, providing a platform for comparing the construction of identities
through mimetic embodiment in ritual, work, and everyday life. Today, as animation is being
remediated through digital media, both scholars and participants in various types of online
communities are beginning to use animation as a trope for human action on/in the world. This
essay attempts to bring together the insights of recent scholarship in various disciplines in
order to outline a general animation model, rst presenting some of the characteristics of
animation that allow it to draw connections between social, technological, and psychic
structures, and then examining some of the ways that the models of animation and performance interact in contemporary subcultural practices. [animation, performance, remediation, media ideologies, techno-cultures]


hose of us who live anywhere in the penumbra of what Roland Kelts (2006)
calls the Moebius Strip of Japanamerica nd ourselves these days surrounded
by all kinds of animated characters. They dance across our cinema and computer screens and sit on our desks to keep us company at work; they beckon us into
shopping malls, museums, and airports; they show up on our credit cards and dangle
from our cell phones and book bags; they run, on their wooden, plastic, or furry little
feet, across the Broadway stage and through the pages of novels and academic essays.
Over the past 20 or so years, without much fanfare, animation has become a ubiquitous part of daily life in the postindustrial world.
This proliferation of animation has been facilitated by several factors, notably the
development of digital technologies; the rise of the so-called content industries or
creative industries in North America, Europe, and Asia; and the increasing international ow of commodities and workers. Much of the animation that surrounds us is
created directly through digital technologyfor example, the computer-generated
characters that populate PC and online games of all sorts, and Pixar Studios annual
blockbuster features. Digital transfer has also allowed for older, analog forms of
animation, for instance Miyazaki Hayaos hand-drawn cel animation and Aardman
Studios claymation features, to reach a global audience on DVD. Industrial structures
and marketing strategies that bind video animation with comics and graphic novels,
gurines, and other tie-in products have emerged from the dialogue between American and Japanese entertainment industries and spread throughout the postindustrial
world (Allison 2006; Jenkins 2005; Kelts 2006).
The proliferation of animation and animated characters is not simply an effect or
symptom of the intersection of computer technology and structural transformations
in global capitalism. Animation is also popular because it provides a productive trope
for thinking through this intersection. In this essay, I argue that animation has the
same potential as a structuring trope in the age of digital media and the rise of the
creative industries that performance had in the age of broadcast media and the rise of
the service industry.
Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Vol. 20, Issue 2, pp. 422438, ISSN 1055-1360, EISSN 1548-1395. 2010
by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1395.2010.01078.x.


Animation: The New Performance?


In the age when our pop culture landscape was dominated by human iconsmovie
stars, rock stars, television personalitiesperformance emerged as a major concept
for linking popular aesthetics to social structures (economic, political, linguistic,
kinship, etc.). Scholars can, and still do, use the concept of performance to analyze
animation. The consumption of manga and anime, particularly the reconstruction of
animated characters in cosplay (i.e., Costume Play), is often read as performance of
subcultural identities. Animators themselves claim to be just very shy actors.1 But
there are ways in which the concept of performance seems to fall short when we are
talking about animated characters. As Hastings and Manning (2004) have pointed out,
the concept of performance has become so tied to the expression of self-identity that
it has tended to deect scholarly attention from the fact that many speech acts are, in
fact, acts of alterity. Within performance studies, the equally strong binding of the
concept of performance to the idea of embodied mimesis has also tended to obscure
animation as a kind of action worthy of study in its own right. The concept of
performance, in other words, tends to hide the ontological difference between animated characters and the people who create, use, and interact with them. We lose sight
of the uncanny illusion of life that makes these characters appealing, of their
particular blend of materiality and imagination, and of their diffuse agency.2
These reections come out of my own research experience. My dissertation project
was squarely within the anthropology of performancein the 1990s, I did eldwork
on the practice of cross-gender performance in Taiwanese folk opera, and on how this
practice inuenced the way that actresses and their fans, as well as Taiwanese society
more broadly, performed and thought about off-stage gender roles. But when I
started doing eldwork with the producers and fans of a popular video puppetry
series in 2002, I kept running into places where the concept of performance just didnt
help. For instance, I found that standard questions which had elicited detailed stories
and explanations from opera actresses and their fansquestions like, How do you
get into character?made no sense at all to fans who were cosplaying puppet
In Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance, Jon McKenzie argues that performance is the stratum of power/knowledge that emerged in the US in the late
twentieth century . . . performance will be to the twentieth and twenty-rst centuries
what discipline was to the eighteenth and nineteenth (2001:18). While I think that
McKenzies Foucauldian, historical analysis of the power effects of performance
discourse is right on target, I also think that the ubiquity of animation in the 21st
century (so far) should make us suspicious of his projection of these power effects
into the future. I would suggest that we are already seeing the emergence of animation as an alternative model of and for human action in the world, one that, like
performance and discipline, is compelling in every sense of the word. Here I want to
draw together some concepts that are being articulated within a broad range of
disciplines and discourses, and propose animation as a trope that, like performance,
might help us to draw new connections between psychology and sociology, art and
economics, technology and culture. I do not propose that animation should replace
performance any more than performance replaced discipline. Rather, like discipline
and performance, performance and animation intersect and complement each other.
Each may be seen as simply a version of the other, but separating them as heuristic
tools allows us to focus on aspects of the postindustrial condition that might otherwise escape notice.
In the rst section of this essay, I want to historically contextualize performance as
a theoretical concept and outline the connections it draws between different spheres
of power/ knowledge. In the second section, I want to clarify the differences between
animation and performance and suggest some of the ways that animation might draw
new lines between different dimensions of human life, in the 21st century. I conclude
with some examples of how anthropology can contribute to the elaboration of animation as a productive trope by looking at how performance and animation are
intertwined in specic cultural practices.

Journal of Linguistic Anthropology


The Performance Paradigm

Histories of performance studies see the discipline gradually emerging in the 1950s
to 1970s, when scholars in the social sciences, philosophy, and theater studies began
to use the tropes of performance, drama, and theatricality to describe social interaction (in anthropology, Erving Goffman, Milton Singer, and Victor Turner were
particularly important in elaborating this trope).3 I believe that one of the conditions
which made performance available as a trope for social theory during these decades
was the fact that theatrical performance was then in the process of what Bolter and
Grusin call remediation in North America and Britain. Bolter and Grusin see
remediation as the representation of one medium in another (1999:45), when a
new technology appropriates the techniques, forms, and social signicance of
other media and attempts to rival or refashion them in the name of the real
In his seminal work on the ow structure of television programming, rst published in 1974, Raymond Williams (1990:59) noted, almost as an aside, that
In most parts of the world, since the spread of television, there has been a scale and intensity
of dramatic performance which is without any precedent in the history of human culture . . . [It] seems probable that in societies like Britain and the United States more drama is
watched in a week or weekend, by the majority of viewers, than would have been watched
in a year or in some cases a lifetime in any previous historical period.

What Williams means by drama here is, basically, real people enacting ctional characters in ctional narratives. In other words, what Williams was noting was televisions remediation of the theater.4
If televisions remediation of theater made drama ubiquitous, its reframing also
brought a new reexivity to theater itself. Televisions remediation of theater in a
particular name of the realits naturalization of naturalismprovoked many in
the avant-garde to relocate the real of the theater in its liveness, in precisely what was
lost in the transposition to television. The redenition of social interaction and ritual
as performance that was elaborated by writers such as Goffman and Turner grew out
of dialogue between theater studies and anthropology in the age of the soap opera
and the sitcom, Grotowski and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. It is not surprising
that these theories tended to dene performance in terms of aspects of theater that
came to the fore in discussions of its difference from televisionthe use of space,
interactive communication, the materiality of the actors body, the visible gap
between actor and role, scriptedness versus improvisation, social reproduction versus
social transformation.
Performance Studies was institutionalized as a discipline with the establishment of
the Performance Studies Program at New York University in 1980. Founder Richard
Schechners denition of performance as restored behavior helped to bring all the
various disciplinary approaches together, and solidied the association of performance with embodiment and mimesis.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the performance paradigm developed in new
directions under the inuence of poststructuralist theory. Judith Butlers Gender
Trouble (1990) bound the idea of performance to identity, combining earlier anthropological concepts of cultural performance with Lacans model of the mirror phase to
argue that biological humans take on gender identities through repeated acts of
(mis)recognition and (always imperfect) mimesis of role models. Butlers model provided a way out of the problem posed by feminists since de Bouvoirthat discursively, woman can only be dened by negativity, as not-manwhile also avoiding
biological essentialism, by arguing that performance is performative in J.L. Austins
sense of the term. In other words, Butler argues that embodied performances of
masculinity and femininity do not simply materialize and reproduce preexisting
social roles, but, over time, construct the identity categories of man and woman. What
Austin would call infelicitous gender performances, such as drag, have the

Animation: The New Performance?


potential to make visible the ideologies that authorize felicitous gender performances (e.g., biologism) as such.5
McKenzie notes that after Judith Butler, Performance Studies came to be seen as
virtually synonymous with Gender/ Queer Studies in the American academy. This is
not simply because Butler herself focuses on gender identity, but because there was a
high degree of overlap between performance studies academics and activists in the
Queer identity political movements in the U.S. and the U.K., and public performance
was taken up, with much success, as a major tactic by ActUp, the Lesbian Avengers,
and many other activist groups.
In the same period, the term performance was also taken up with zeal in the business
world, for instance in the now ubiquitous employee performance evaluations and
shareholder demands for organizational performance. McKenzie argues that in this
discourse, Austins concept of performativity as efcacy is replaced by the conation
of performance with efciency. For the promoters of business performance management, the concept of performance emphasizes workers agency, but as McKenzie
points out, failure to perform proactively ironically has the same consequences as
failure to be disciplined did in an earlier age.
I think that these two associations, between performance and gender and performance and organizational or worker efciency, are connected; both are related to the
restructuring of the U.S. economy. The 1980s and 1990s was a period which saw the
decline of traditional American manufacturing, and the rise of the service, information, and high-tech sectors, along with the increasing feminization of laborthe
steady increase in the percentage of women working outside the home, the expansion
of labor sectors traditionally considered womens work, and the increasing requirement for feminine skills in many middle-class jobs. The earliest workers to see their
labor explicitly as performance (after professional entertainers, of course) were
women in the pink collar sector. Arlie Hochschilds classic study of airline stewardesses (The Managed Heart, 2003[1983]) showed that these women talked about the
emotion work required by their jobs explicitly as acting a role.6 As Hochschild
noted, jobs that required emotion work were among the fastest growing parts of the
labor market in the U.S. in the 1980s. In other words, performance studies was
recognizing gender identity as performance at the same time that sociology was
recognizing the performance of femininity (and in some cases masculinity) as an
important aspect of labor in the deindustrializing world.
In sum, the model of performance emerged in response to developments in media
technologies and economic restructuring but also participated in those structural
transformations. I believe that implicit models of animation are already doing the
same work in computerized, postindustrial societies, and in the following sections,
I want to try to begin making those models more explicit.

Animation: Denitions
Following in the footsteps of performance studies, let me start by cobbling together a
rough denition of animation that can productively incorporate approaches from the
arts, anthropology, and psychology. All of these approaches retain something of the
etymological sense of animation as breathing life into a thing, but each denes
life in a slightly different way.
From the perspective of professional animators and arts scholars, animation is
primarily dened as a medium. The most common contemporary use of the term
animation (or anime) refers to a genre of lm or video, and most academic theorizing of animation has taken place within lm and media studies. Animation in this
sense is dened in opposition to live action cinema or television and includes cel
animation and computer-generated animation (both 2D and 3D, both in lm and
games), as well as a wide variety of techniques such as claymation, stop-motion,
paper cut-out animation, and so on.


Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

Cinema studies writes the history of animation in terms of the remediation of the
visual arts, particularly drawing, painting, and photography (there has been some
work on sound in animation, but as in cinema studies generally, surprisingly little).
Here, the history of animation is traced through devices such as the stereopticon and
Muybridges photography, and Alan Cholodenko (2007) makes the compelling argument, based on this technological history, that all cinema is, in fact, animation, because
lm itself is a technology whose primary effect is the illusion of movement created
through the rapid sequence of still frames.
But cinema is only one recent medium of animation, and the scope of an arts
denition of animation should include all the older media which cinema animation
remediatesstory-scrolls and comic books, for instance, as well as all forms of
puppetrymarionettes, glove puppets, rod puppets, shadow puppets, and so on.
Puppeteers and puppetry studies dene animation in opposition to live theater, by the
presence of performing objects, including not only puppets, but masks and
automata (Proschan 1983). In sum, the arts (including media studies) denition of
animation focuses on techne, on a range of technologies and skills that are used to
create the illusion of life.
To come up with an anthropological concept of cultural animation that can do
similar work to Singers cultural performance, let me turn rst, as performance
studies did, to the anthropology of religion. Where the Ur-cultural performance was
religious ritual, the Ur-cultural animation is the investment of icons, efgies, talismans, and natural objects with divine power, what Victoria Nelson refers to as
practices of en-souling matter (2001:30). Within anthropology, the most well
articulated theory of animation is probably Alfred Gells (1998) analysis of how sacred
objects are invested with their own agencyboth through formal qualities that
abstractly represent cultural concepts of personhood and through human interaction
with them. Mauss theorization of the gift as a part of the self invested in an object and
Marxs theory of the commodity fetish might both be seen as an expansion of the
anthropological model of animation beyond the overtly religious sphere.
If performance studies took its psychological model from Lacans mirror stage,
animation studies would look more to object-relations theory. For Judith Butler,
Lacans description of the mirror stage provides the model for how individuals come
to embody social roles, particularly gender roles. In the mirror stage, when the infant
rst sees its reection in a mirror, it misrecognizes the image as an idealized self, and
tries to control what it sees through its own movements. In Butlers model, individuals throughout their lives continually misrecognize external images as idealized
selves and embody gender and other roles through continual acts of mimesis which
become habitual, although, like the infants uncoordinated movements, their performances always fail to completely reconstruct the imaginary ideal.
D.W. Winnicotts concept of the transitional object provides a way of thinking
about animation as a complementary universal psychic process, one which is as
crucial to the processes of socialization and individual development as performance,
and is inseparable from them. In early infancy, introjection of the m/other into the self
and projection of the self into the m/other are virtually indistinguishable. According
to Winnicott (1971), children are usually attached to transitional objectsoften blankets or stuffed toysfor a period in infancy. The transitional object is simultaneously
me and not me for the child. These objects are an important part of the childs
development, comforting her through the gradual realization that the mother and the
world the mother brings to the child are independent from the childs own desire.
Performance (e.g., playing cops and robbers, dressing up) and animation (e.g., play
with dolls, stuffed toys, Matchbox cars, etc.) are probably both universal forms of
childrens play. Both forms of play exist in the space where me and not me merge.
Play, thus dened, is, according to Winnicott, vital to developing the human capacity
for creativity, not just in childhood, but throughout life. If Butlers reading of Lacan
posits performance as the introjection of the environment into the self, a psychic
theory of animation focuses on the projection of the self into the environment. In both

Animation: The New Performance?


cases, the transitional space is where boundaries between self and world are encountered, crossed, and reconstructed.
Drawing on all of these approaches, let us provisionally dene animation as broadly
as possible, as the projection of qualities perceived as humanlife, power, agency,
will, personality, and so onoutside of the self, and into the sensory environment,
through acts of creation, perception, and interaction. This projection, like any human
expression, requires a medium, and we can take the comparative study of technes of
animationin art, in religion, in everyday lifeas the goal of an anthropology of
animation. Hopefully this denition not only covers a wide range of cultural practices, from animism to robotics, but also emphasizes the importance of analyzing such
practices for the anthropological project of exploring differences in how the human
and the nonhuman are dened and how the self and the world are experienced.
Remediation and Reexivity
Digital animation seems to be reaching the kind of rst Golden Age that cinema
reached in the 1930s, and television in the 1950s and 1960s, where certain ways of
using the new media technologies, certain genres and formats, are becoming established as standard, and an industrial structure is becoming more or less stable. As
with cinema and television, with digital media, the mainstream is dened by a trend
toward increasing verisimilitude and immersive effects. This is especially apparent
in animated cinema and gaming, where the goal of creating increasingly lifelike
images (more detailed texturing, smoother movement, 3D) is taken for granted by
programmers and designers in large companies such as Pixar Studios and Blizzard
Just as avant-garde performance artists and theorists in the 1930s and 1960s challenged the naturalist conventions of classical Hollywood cinema and television
drama by emphasizing the nonrealist elements of live theater and ritual, contemporary avant-garde animators and animation theorists are emphasizing the reexive
effects of earlier technes of animation (effects which may have been unintentional and
only come to light in comparison with more recent animation styles).7
Avant-garde performance artists and theorists since Brecht have focused on the
duality of actor and role. Judith Butler posits that such reexivity actually exposes the
ontological sameness of the twothat the actors real social self is as much an effect
of embodied, mimetic performance as is the onstage character. Avant-garde puppeteers and theorists of puppetry focus on the duality of puppeteer and puppet, but
tend to see self-reexive puppetry as revealing antinomies at the heart of human
existencebody and soul, manipulation and free will, objective reality and subjective
One of the most inuential animators exploring the relationship between technology and ontology is Japanese auteur director Oshii Mamoru. Oshiis oevre (especially
the Ghost in the Shell series) explores the nature of the human and the nonhuman
through dense narratives about a future world in which human souls are hacked
into a wide range of media/objectsmechanical bodies, prostheses, puppets, cyberspace itself. Oshii cites a wide range of academic theory in his art (one of his characters is named after Donna Haraway, for example), and some of the most interesting
academic cultural contextualizations and elaborations of the animation trope come
out of critical studies of Oshiis work (e.g., Bolton 2002; Brown 2008; Orbaugh 2008).
The ethnography of virtual worlds and communities is another site where the
antinomies of animation are being explored, and where predigital technologies of
animation have provided productive models for thinking about the ontology of
avatars and mediated social spaces. In his review of Tom Boellstorffs Second Life and
other recent studies of virtual worlds, Paul Manning (2009) draws on Prague School
and Russian Modernist theories of puppetry (e.g., Bogatyrev, Meyerhold) in order to
construct a basis for comparing how different technes construct mediated selves and
draw the boundaries between the imaginary and the real. In the following section, I

Journal of Linguistic Anthropology


want to expand on this work to outline a few characteristics of animation which make
it work particularly well as a trope for thinking about culture in a world of globalized
computer technology.
Creator/Character Ratio
Although there are many ways in which performance and animation overlap, a noted
difference between them is the ratio of creator(s) to character(s) (Kaplin 2001). In
performance, whether it be theatrical performance, the performance of ritual, or the
performance of self in everyday life, one body can only inhabit one role at a time.
There are forms of puppetry in which one puppeteer voices and manipulates one
character, but these are rare. More usual are forms like wayang kulit, in which one
puppeteer moves and voices all of the characters, or bunraku, in which several people
are responsible for creating a single character. Both ends of the puppeteer-tocharacter ratio have their parallels in contemporary digital culture.
On the one hand, many analyses of the experience of working on computers,
especially of participating in virtual communities, note that playing multiple roles is
a very common experience. In discussions of American online communities, the trope
of multiple personalities or split personalities is often used to describe the effect
of working in several windows, and creating a different persona in each one, at the
same timewhat Kate Bornstein and Caitlin Sullivan call splattering identity
(Bornstein 1998:212225). It is perhaps no accident that Bornstein has long been
involved in transgender activism and also is hirself a performance artist. It may be
that this sense of newness, of exhilaration and terror, that many experience while
creating multiple characters in online space, is at least in part related to their reading
of their online action as performance. Thinking of online role-playing as animating,
rather than performing, might help us to localize these experiences in place and time.
We might ask, for instance, whether young people who grew up doing much of their
communication through MSN and cellphone texting, or who grew up in societies
such as Indonesia where master puppeteers are powerful social and religious gures,
experience having multiple online personae in the same way.
At the same time, contemporary manga, anime, and logo characters are often
acknowledged as the creations of collectives, rather than auteurs. The fact that many
people contribute to a live cinema performance (including the scriptwriter, director,
cinematographer, lighting director, etc.) is certainly an aspect of cinema, but one that,
under the performance paradigm, received very little attention. In anime and manga,
the characters may still be seen as auteur creations (think of Disney and Miyazaki),
but fans, and many scholars, often see the sense that these characters have lives of
their own as arising from their re-creation in numerous media and styles by hundreds, thousands of fans. Of course, media fans were writing their own stories and
making artwork based on their favorite characters back in the days of the mimeograph, but the Internet has increased the range of media through which fans recreate
the characters and intensied the replication of images and narratives. Animated
characters belong to fans in a different way than embodied human stars like
Marilyn Monroe or Mick Jagger. And in the age of what Henry Jenkins (2005) calls
convergence culture, even characters originally embodied by human actors are
becoming like animated characters in this sense of being collective works.8
The Character as a Construction of Multimedia Codes
Roland Barthes, in his inuential essay on bunraku, spoke directly to the difference
between animation and embodied performance, dening the Western conception of
the theater as one where the characters coherence (the illusion of totality) is
modeled on the presumed organic coherence of the human body. In bunraku, by
contrast, the character is composed of separated mediathe puppet itself, its manipulation by actors visible behind and beside it, the voice of the singer who sits by the

Animation: The New Performance?


stage and recites the dialogue. By the discontinuity of the codes, by this caesura
imposed on the various features of representation, . . . the copy elaborated on the
stage is not destroyed but somehow broken, striated, withdrawn from that metonymic contagion of voice and gesture, body and soul, which entraps our actors
(Barthes 1982:5455). Many scholars see this striation as a dening characteristic of
puppetry in general, and Steve Tillis classies puppetry forms based on the technologies and styles of the three sign-systems of the puppet: design, movement, and
speech (1992:118).9
The question of whether puppetry is therefore a unique form of expression, or
merely a particularly pure example of the construction of character through
systems of code which is characteristic of all performance has been a fraught one
since the debates between Prague School semioticians Otakar Zich and Pietr Bogatyrev in the 1930s. Scott Cutler Shershow (1995) has shown that this debate was irresolvable, since it inevitably boiled down to ideological associations of drama and
puppetry with high versus low culture. An anthropology of animation could retain
the basic insight that the difference between embodied performance and mediastriated animation matters, but treat the question of how it matters as an ethnographic, rather than philosophical, problem. In other words, we can see specic
animation practices as microcosmic instantiations of broader media ideologies (see
Gershon, this volume). Thus we could, for example, move beyond critiques of
Barthes self-conscious Orientalism to ask how Japanese artists and audiences talk
about the differences between bunraku and kabuki, and how this discourse might
relate to Japanese philosophies of personhood.10
The striation of different media has also been noted as one of the characteristics of
communication through digital media. Paying attention to how different sign systems
and media are organized in relation to each other in, for example, the design of online
games or social networking sites, can tell us something about contemporary concepts
of the sign. For instance, Manning suggests that comparing how characters are
voiced, both in terms of through which medium (as in the debates in Second Life
over the introduction of voice technology vs. text chat) and in what registers, might
be revelatory of our own complex and fraught actual world semiotic ideologies
about the category of the voice, so often a proxy for notions of the authentic self
The Object-Person
Older media fan cultures, as analyzed under the performance paradigm, were seen as
based on acts of identity/identication. That is, the transitional space of broadcast
media fandom has been described largely in terms of the introjection of the idealized
other into the self. In contrast, it is striking how little the idea of identity or identication appears in recent work on digitally mediated subcultures. The relationship
between fan and animated character tends to be read in terms of alterity rather than
afnity; animated characters are not so much introjected role models as psychically
projected objects of desire. The idea of animation fandom as fetishism has been
articulated most often in recent theorizing of the subculture of young, male Japanese
manga and anime fans, or otaku.
Otaku are rarely described as identifying with animated characters, in the sense of
feeling that the character is like them, or that they would like to be like the character,
or in the sense of experiencing the ctional world as the character experiences it,
although, of course, they do do this. But the focus in both popular and academic
studies tends to be on the otakus obsessive collection of DVDs and gurines, and
their intense erotic and emotional attachment to the material form of the characters as
what distinguishes them from fans in general.
The particular nature of otaku fetishism is summed up in the word moe, which
refers to the strong feeling of attraction or affection for an animated character. The
word is usually written with the character for to/sprout but also sometimes with


Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

the character for burn/ing; the characters are homonyms, and moes use plays on
both meanings. Moe can be either an adjective or a verb. It can refer either to the
intense burning emotion felt by a fan toward a character, or the sprouting of that
feeling in the fan. It also refers to a quality of the character, that is, the characters
ability to elicit intense affect in the fan. One can say, for instance, Sailor Moon is so
moe! or I really moe Sailor Moon! or Ive been moe-ed by Sailor Moon!11 The
term is used in some different ways by male and female fans. Women fans in Taiwan,
for example, often speak of moe-points referring most often to narrative situations,
in particular relationships between two male characters (e.g., brothers, teacher/
student), from which new homoerotic stories about them sprout up in the fans
mind (see Silvio, 2010). According to Azuma Hiroki (2009), otaku tend to xate on
what he calls moe-elementsformal qualities of a character, such as a maids
costume, blue hair, cat ears, or a lisp.12
Azuma relates contemporary otakus xation on moe-elements, as opposed to
earlier generations of (male) fans more intense engagement with narrative, to the
structure of digital technology. Otaku subculture is characterized by what he calls
database consumption. For instance, Azuma writes, in the popular search engine
TINAMI, As soon as the characters are created, they are broken up into elements,
categorized, and registered to a database (2009:47), which allows otaku to nd or
generate characters who are basically bundles of specic moe-elements.
Moe-elements are, in a sense, essential to all animationwhen the human is
dened in terms of affect, it can only be projected into the material world via conventionalized signiers. A characteristic of animation that comes with the striation of
media is the simplication of each mediums sign system in comparison with the
organically integrated sign systems of embodied performance (this is what we mean
when we say an image or performance is cartoony). A comparative anthropology of
animation should pay attention not only to the relationships among media, but also to
the nature of the signs in each one.
In many forms of animation, specic formal qualities stand for specic character
traits. For example, in traditional Chinese hand-puppetry, a red face indicates loyalty,
a mole in the center of the forehead indicates a merciful character, and so on. What is
special about the animation techne of otaku is that it simultaneously homogenizes
affect (condensing a range of emotional responses into the single term moe) and
proliferates conventionalized affect-signs (moe-elements) across a range of media.
This makes the arbitrariness of the relationship between material qualities and emotional states explicit.
Japanese psychologist Saito Tomaki has argued that it is, in fact, the gap between
their fantasies and their everyday sexual lives that characterizes the sexuality of the
otaku (male manga and anime fan) and the yaoi fan (women who write homoerotic
stories about manga and anime characters). He writes:
Otaku and yaoi fans are fetishists to the extent that we all arein the sense that when we
desire an object, what we desire is something the object fundamentally lacks. But while the
rest of us are usually unaware of this lack, otaku are conscious of it to some extent. In other
words, they realize that the object of their desire is nothing more than a ction. [Saito

We might reframe this self-conscious fetishism in terms of the difference between

performance and animation. In other words, we could say that otaku and yaoi fans are
not so much conscious of lack, as that they simply do not experience the personality
as an organic totality in the rst place.
Cuteness, Branding, and the Labor of Animation
One notable characteristic of much of the animation in postindustrial societies is
cuteness. While cuteness is a part of animation for children almost everywhere, its
increasing popularity among adults has been associated with the globalization of
Japanese media products and character goods.

Animation: The New Performance?


Most of the research on the Japanese kawaii (cute) aesthetic has been framed in
terms of performance. Sharon Kinsella (1995) argues, for instance, that the performance of cute identities among young Japanese (especially women) expresses their
dissatisfaction with the disciplinary restrictions associated with adult social life
(especially the role of housewife). Looking at cuteness as an aspect of animation, on
the other hand, may lead us to see cuteness more as a projection of adults already
implicated in the transforming economy.
If the performance paradigm institutionalized during a period when the service
sector, especially pink-collar labor, was expanding, the newest part of the current
new economy is what is often called the creative industries or the content
industries.13 This includes, of course, the work of producing manga, anime, and
computer games, but also design, advertising, and licensing, which are moving closer
to the model of animation.
One of the most prominent uses of animated cartoon characters today is as brand
logos or mascots, personications of corporations and other organizations. This may
be particularly true in Asia. In Taiwan, for example, the list of entities represented by
cartoon characters includes banks and life insurance companies, gas companies,
restaurant chains and snack foods, electronics manufacturers and real estate agencies,
agricultural associations, temple alliances, urban neighborhoods, the 2010 International Floral Expo, and the national postal service. These cartoon characters are
designed to attach the consumers positive feelings to both the products or services
produced by an organization and to the organization itself. Manning, summarizing
recent work on the semiotics of branding, writes that in some contemporary brand
discourse, the pervasive associations based on the role brands play in consumers
lives are transformed into actual anthropomorphic characteristics imputed to brands
understood as holistic, organic, living, growing entities with which consumers can
form actual social relationships directly (2010:36).
If there is an equivalent in the animation model to the punitive power (perform or
else!) that McKenzie nds in the business model of performance as efciency, it
probably lies in the command to brand. Branding makes the value of nonmaterial
labor legible, turning qualitiesgoodwill, recognition, affectinto products that can
be sold. Not only corporations, but individuals and nations, are coming to see the
brand as the primary repository of value and branding as a precondition for action in
the world.
Performance Studies has focused primarily on the expressive aspect of
communicationon how the performer produces meaningrather than on the interpretation of performative acts. One of the characteristics of animation, however, is
that much responsibility for communication is given to the receiver, and that animators and their audiences are aware of this. For this reason, one of the key characteristics of many animated characters is incompleteness. As Ivan Koos of the Budapest
State Puppet Theatre puts it:
The most important thing in the visual representation of the puppet stage is that it sets
something going in the spectators imagination without nishing the process. At a certain
point the idea is left open to be completed by the spectator . . . Take a familiar example: some
of the puppets have no mouths, yet the spectator has the feeling that at certain appropriate
moments the puppet smiles or gives expression to its sentiments by facial mimicry. [cited in
Tillis 1992:116]

Character designers I have interviewed in Taiwan see this kind of incompleteness

as a crucial aspect of logo characters in particular (as opposed to anime or game
characters)think of the mouthless, nearly blank circle that is Hello Kitty, arguably
the most successful branded character in the world.
As Sharon Kinsella (1995) and Inuhiko Yomota (2007) point out, objects and people
are perceived as cute when they are seen to have the qualities of innocence and
vulnerability, when they elicit feelings of pity and protectiveness. As Kinsella argues,
one of the ironies of performed cuteness is that it requires a great deal of work and


Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

forethought to give the impression of incompetence and spontaneity. But the irony of
cute cartoon characters is somewhat different. Their vulnerability is semioticthe
more open they are to the projection of different affects, the cuter they are. Any power
they have comes from the external world, from the anonymous crowd.
The vulnerability of logo characters speaks, then, quite directly to the vulnerability
of the creative industries themselves. Cute brand characters are in a sense metabrands, for they are not only designed to symbolize and promote the abstract entities
of corporations, they embody the vulnerability of branding itselftheir utter dependence on the unpredictable and unknowable hearts of anonymous, unstructured
Performance and Animation Together
Thus far, I have been exaggerating the differences between performance and
animationperformance involves embodiment, introjection, mimesis, and selfidentity; animation involves disembodiment, projection, alterity, and the object
world, and so on. Even theoretically, these differences are tenuous; in practice, performance and animation are even harder to separate. In the contemporary cinema, for
example, live-action lms are full of animated special effects; human embodiment is
critical to the process of motion capture, a key technique in digital animation; the
same stories and characters are transferred constantly between live action and animated lm (live action remakes of The Flintstones and Blood: the Last Vampire, a
cartoon version of Rowan Atkinsons Mr. Bean, etc.). In the following section, I want
to give examples of some of the different ways that performance and animation
interact in postindustrial cultures outside of the entertainment industry, in subcultural and daily practices. I focus on the semiotic and media ideologies in play in these
different situations, particularly how different interactions between performance and
animation are structured by, and serve to construct, other social formations such as
gender, generation, and class.
Animation as the Construction of Self-Identity
The most visible areas where the social functions of performance have been remediated through animation are probably online communications and the building of
virtual communities. This includes not only the animated characters through which
people interact in online games, but the ubiquitous animated emoticons that create
affect in text messages sent through cellular phones and MSN networks. The move in
the development of virtual communities from pure text to text-plus-animation has
been seen as naturalbut I believe we can see this impulse as cultural, as emerging
from specic traditions of interaction between performance and animation, rather
than as a characteristic of either universal human nature or the technology itself.
In online communities/ games such as Second Life, Ryzom, Lineage II, or Final
Fantasy, the participant/ player must represent himself or herself through an animated character. In the U.S., where the software for these networks was developed in
California alongside New Age ideology, the name for such a character is taken from
the Hindu/ Buddhist religious vocabularyavatar, the embodied form of a deity.15
Puppeteers such as Mark Tillis see such avatars as puppets created and manipulated
through new technology (2001). But many other participants in virtual worlds, especially in the U.S., think of avatars as expressions of self. I, Avatar, Mark Stephen
Meadows description of the nature of identity in cyberspace, is an excellent example
of how the digital animation model is linked to the remediation of specic local
performance traditions across the elds of play and work. Meadows compares the
virtual community of Second Life and similar online social spaces to Hollywood in
the 1920s. Both communities, he argues, attracted huge numbers of new immigrants who were trying to live out their fantasies and construct new identities for
themselves, and both were driven by work in the newest medium of mass commu-

Animation: The New Performance?


nication (Meadows 2005:78). For Meadows, digital animation remediates cinemas

remediation of the actor. The actors physical body is no longer itself the medium of
expression, but the cinematic performance and the avatar both carry on the functions
of constructing and presenting a public self and (potentially) making a living. For
Meadows and others, the avatar also works as a sort of Lacanian mirror-image that is
imagined and then constructed by the user, but in turn can also transform the users/
performers experience of self-identity (e.g., see Dibbell 1998).
Another kind of animated character used to express identity is the emoticon. In
East Asia, what started as simple facial expressions represented through common
keyboard symbols (e.g., :) for a smile) has now developed through more elaborate
keyboard cartoons (e.g., ( ) for surprise) to complete animated characters, such as
Taiwans Wan Wan and Onion Head (both of these are now licensed characters and
appear on a wide variety of stationery products and toys, as well as in the form of
digital images).16 These characters are developed by individual designers and used in
their blogs to illustrate and create affect as they narrate their daily lives. Others can
download these character emoticons for use in their own online communications.
These gures are, like the logo characters discussed above, drawn extremely simply,
and the cartoon images are often framed in boxes and captioned (Go go go!,
Angry!, Happy! etc.).
The emoticon is an icon of generic affect, rather than individual identity, and it
remediates the pose. The conventionalized, held pose is a key part of the structure of
such traditional East Asian performance genres as Peking Opera and kabuki, where
it condenses the characters emotional state and often signals a narrative climax.
Conventionalized poses are also a common way that manga and anime characters are
invested with affect. The emoticon images of Wan Wan or Onion Head serve the same
function, allowing individuals to narrate their own emotional lives through the
medium of animation.

Embodied Performance as Self-Animation

The practice of cosplaydressing up as animated characterscan be seen as a remediation in the opposite direction, remediating digital animation into embodied performance. The same practice of embodiment may be experienced very differently,
however, through the lenses of performance and animation.17
Susan Napiers ethnography of American manga and anime cosplayers, for
instance, reveals that these young people tend to see cosplay as acting out roles, at
times even using method acting techniques, such as writing backstories for their
characters, to get into character (Napier 2007). In contrast, in my own eldwork with
Taiwanese cosplayers who dress as puppet characters, I found that the vast majority
saw cosplay as reanimating the characters by substituting the human body for the
wooden one. Their performances consisted mostly of still posing for photographs,
and they did not try to stay in character if a camera was not present. When they
performed skits, they often maintained puppetrys striation of media, lip-synching,
and posing to pre-recorded dialogue (often with all the characters voiced, as in the
Taiwanese puppetry tradition, by a single person) (Silvio 2006).
The conventional poses of emoticons are also embodied as part of the performative
style of many East Asian youth cultures (e.g., the performance of cuteness). Some of
these poses incorporate conventionally iconic elements. For example, Japanese and
Taiwanese young people, during the course of a conversation, may hold up three
ngers of one hand and move their hand in a downward motion beside their face.
This gesture imitates the downward lines which are drawn in manga beside a characters face to indicate extreme stress or embarrassment (///), often said to be an
abstracted icon of sweat running downmaking the gesture an embodied remediation of what is already a conventionalized icon of embodied affect. The convoluted
travels of the pose, from theater to manga and anime, from manga and anime to

Journal of Linguistic Anthropology


emoticons and cosplay, from emoticons and cosplay to everyday comportment, reect
long and continuous histories in which human theater and puppetry, performance
and animation, have been intertwined.
The Romance of Performance and Animation
One of the reasons that the Japanese male otaku subculture seems so extreme, the
classic example of a pure animation culture, has to do, I think with the relative lack
of integration between emotional work and programming work in Japan. These two
kinds of labor are divided along gender lines almost everywhere in the postindustrial world, but in Japan, the role of facilitating communication seems to fall
even more disproportionately on women.
We might then read the popular online novel/ manga/ lm Densha Otoko (Train
Man) as a fantasy about the complementary union of performance and animation. In
Densha Otoko, an unnamed 22-year-old typical Akihabara otaku falls in love with an
older OL (ofce lady) after rescuing her from an abusive drunk on the train. The hero
works as a computer techie for a business rm. He spends his nights in an anonymous online forum where participants chat and exchange ASCII art (cartoon images
created with keyboard symbols). The OLs work involves dealing with her rms
foreign clients. Speaking English is, of course, a sign of the womans upper-class
status, but it is also signicant that her work is facilitating communication. The course
of the romance consists primarily of the woman, aided by the otakus virtual network
of anonymous friends, teaching the otaku literally how to acthow to play the role of
boyfriend, how to dress and order in a restaurant, how to express his feelings verbally.
In exchange, the otaku helps her navigate technology. In the lm, the OL reveals that
one of the things that most moved her was when the otaku rearranged her sugar
cubes into a pyramidan act with doll-house play overtones, which might be seen as
an act of animation, of reenchanting the real world by creating a separate, miniature
fantasy space within it.18
Henry Jenkins notes a recent shift in the structure of the global entertainment industry toward world makingrather than producing just lms, or games, or comic
books, networks of artists, corporations, and fans are collectively producing transmedia environments in which characters and narratives continually evolve (2005:113
122). If televisions remediation and ubiquitization of drama, along with the growth
and feminization of the service industry, pushed scholars to explore the relationship
between performance and identity, this trend toward world making as popular
entertainment and work is a sign that it might be time to start exploring the relationship between animation and environment. Performance studies taught us that
acting is not just something set apart from reality, but a model of and for the process
through which real identities are constructed. What I suggest here is that we can
begin to think of animation as more than an entertainment medium, as a possible
mode of performative (real, social) world making.
I see this essay as a rst step in constructing a general concept of animation as one
model for human action in the world, in the hopes that animation might provide
some of the kinds of insights that the concept of performance has provided across
academic disciplines. I have tried to integrate the models of performance and animation,in order to bring some of the key foci of performance studies (e.g., identity, social
reproduction, and social transformation) to bear on the study of digital technocultures, and to suggest some of the characteristics of animation (e.g., the organization of striated media) as possible foci for new research on computer-mediated
identity and community. My main goal here is to construct a platform that will make
it possible for us to simultaneously recognize the global effects of the spread of digital
technology and the specicity of local techno-cultures.

Animation: The New Performance?


Linguistic anthropology is particularly important here, because one of the ultimate

goals of an anthropology of animation must be the analysis of media ideologies. The
analysis of media ideologies in the context of animation already has a distinguished
history. Scott Shershow (1995) and Victoria Nelson (2001) have written detailed histories of how puppetry has been used, at various times in Western intellectual history,
as a metaphor for the relationship between God and man, a model for how political
power works, an index of the simple mentality of children and the folk, a model of
pure, unmediated authorship or of manipulated, degraded artice. Ward Keelers
(1987) classic ethnography of wayang kulit explores the role of the master puppeteer,
both in Javanese social life and as a symbol. Bolton (2002), Brown (2008), and Orbaugh
(2008) have analyzed how Oshii Mamoru uses images of both Japanese and European
puppets and dolls to explore the question of what denes the boundary between
human and nonhuman.
My project in this essay, to set up animation as a platform for the comparative study
of how human beings negotiate the relationship between self and world, both
includes such projects of intellectual history and, of course, should itself be subjected
to cultural and historical contextualization. My denition of animation is admittedly
secular, comparativist, and reliant on the genealogy and connotations of a Latinate
word that has no close equivalent in many languages. My attempt at transformative
mimesis of the structure of performance studies has no doubt failed, as all mimesis
must, but I hope that, with your indulgence, these failures might turn out to be
productive ones.

Acknowledgments. Research for this essay was partially funded by grants from the National
Science Council of Taiwan [NSC 97-2628-H-001-005-MY3], [NSC 94-2412-H-001-011], [NSC
92-2412-H-001-035-SSS/NSC 93-2412-H-001-002]. I presented earlier versions of this essay at
two conferences at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinicathe Asian Digital Cultures 2
conference in July 2009 and the Anthropological Futures conference in June 2010. I am grateful
to my discussants, Christopher Bolton, Allen Chun, and Irene Fang-chih Yang, as well as Helen
Grace, Anne Allison, John McCreery, Greg Urban, Rob Wilson, Michael Dutton, and all the
other participants who gave me extremely helpful comments. I also want to thank Ilana
Gershon, Paul Manning, Miyako Inoue, and an anonymous reviewer for their thoughtful,
patient, and educational readings of my drafts.
1. Animator Kyle Balda, who has worked as character designer and animation supervisor
for Pixar, Industrial Light and Magic, and other large studios, described himself this way at a
lecture he gave at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, October 30, 2009.
2. As Manning points out, dolls and automata are at the center of Jentschs 1906 theorization
of the uncanny (unheimlich), which predates that of Freud (Manning 2009:323, fn5).
3. See McKenzie (2001:3338) for a summary of these histories.
4. Of course, this process began with cinema, and television largely remediated theater
through lm. But I think Williams observation that television made (remediated) theatrical
performance a larger part of daily life in the industrialized world than cinema had is important.
5. Performance (a kind of action) and performativity (a quality of language) are often
mistakenly conated. The precise nature of the relationship between the two is a central
problematic for both queer studies and linguistic anthropology. See, respectively, Parker and
Sedgwick (1995) and Hall (2000).
6. Editors note: Within linguistic anthropology Deborah Camerons studies of gendered
performance of service workers within call centers deserves special mention (Cameron
7. Thus, for instance, Thomas Lamarre (2009) sees the effect of layered, shifting planes of
images that results from the animation stand technology used to make most Japanese anime as
offering an alternative to the target-vision perspectivalism of most cinema, which Paul Virilio
links to militarisman offer Lamarre sees auteur animators such as Miyazaki Hayao and Anno
Hideaki as taking up quite consciously. The perspective of shifting, layered planes, according
to Lamarre, allows for a vision of less violent and hierarchical interaction between self and
environment, the human and the nonhuman.

Journal of Linguistic Anthropology


8. On the collectively constructed reality of characters, see Jenkins (1992) and Silvio (2008).
It is signicant that Jenkins uses a story about toys (The Velveteen Rabbit) to explicate how fans
engage with the characters and worlds of live-action television serials.
9. We can, of course, add or subtract to this list of sign-systems for different technes of
animation. Cinema animation, for example, also involves codes of background music, composition and framing, number of cels projected per second, etc.
10. Christopher Bolton (2002) does something very like this in his article on Oshiis remediation of bunraku in Ghost in the Shell.
11. This is how the term is used in Taiwan, at least.
12. Azuma presents himself as a theorist of the postmodern condition in Japan and in
general, but nearly all of his analyses are of practices associated with male otaku, ignoring
womens distinctive fan practices. I cite Azuma here as one of the most sophisticated theorists
of the relationship between digital animation culture and contemporary Japanese masculinity.
13. There are also elds within scientic and IT research that might be seen as kinds of
animationarticial life, robotics, and human-computer interface design, for example.
These elds have been prominent in the emerging eld of the sociology/ anthropology of
14. See Allison (2009) on the connection between the vulnerability of young workers in
Japans increasingly precarious economy and the imaginative, affective skills that drive the
animation industry there. Character designers in Japan and Taiwan, where marketing research
has been (at least until very recently) rarely used, or is something done on the go, may feel
this vulnerability particularly strongly. But even in large multinational corporations where
end-user focus groups and audience ethnography are de rigeur, the attempt to know and x
the relationship between material qualities and affects may simply intensify anxiety. It makes
sense that cute characters have played such an important role as global ambassadors for the
Japanese content industriesin situations where producers and consumers are culturally
distant, semiotic vulnerability is intensied.
15. Interestingly, in my anecdotal experience, gamers in Taiwan, who grew up with
Buddhist/ Taoist religious practice, do not use this term, preferring to simply call their game
characters characters or by more specic variations such as my wizard, my elf, and so on.
16. Many keyboard face cartoons that are now popular throughout East Asia were invented
by Japanese girls specically for cell-phone texting (see Miller 2004, 2005). To see Wan Wans
emoticon characters, you can go to her blog: Onion
Heads emoticons are introduced on the Onion Club blog at
17. Gagne (2008) interviewed Japanese Goth/Lolitas (young women who dress in elaborate
cute/Baroque style) who distinguish themselves from cosplayers by claiming that they are
expressing their true selves while cosplayers are merely mimicking animated characters. We
might see this as a classic example of performance and animation as competing ideological
18. At the end of Ocha Machikos shojo manga (girls comic) version of the story (Ocha
2006), the only commercial version created by a female artist that I could nd, the female lead
(drawn much younger than in the movie) reveals her huge collection of dolls, character
gurines and stuffed toys to the otaku. From their own perspective, women mediate competencies in both performance and animation, both in their work and private life, rather than
embodying a pure performance model (see Silvio 2006).

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Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica
128 Academia Road, Section 2
Nangang District, Taipei 115 TAIWAN