Art and Architecture, Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

On the Animated GIF and the V-P Debate

In On the Animation of the Inorganic: Art, Architecture, and the Extensions of Life, Sypros Papapetros argues for an abridged history of animated life, locating the “peripheral” and “eccentric” animated objects at the margins of modernism someplace between Freud’s overdetermined elements and diagrammatic, simulating metaphors of life and movement. He willingly takes on the complimentarity between subject and object that animation infers (at one point citing the response of a young victim to a kind of Pokémon hysteria induced by the rapid flashes and hypercolor intensity of the Japanese cartoon as a seizure both “spatiotemporal and epistemological”). Positing the animation of inanimate objects as part of a deeper project of how twentieth-century modernist culture repressed empathy, Papapetros suggests that the animation of the image comes at the expense of its human subject—which got us to thinking.

Watching the commentary—literally watching, since so much is the product of YouTube clips and re-Tumbled images—following last night’s vice-presidential debate has been a stupefying morning experience. My brain has long since been trained to ride the contours of Papapetros’s epistemological shockwaves—more often saturated than not by animated-GIF culture and the new media aesthetic, I’m more profoundly taken aback when my generation’s response to realtime socio-poliltical engagements takes a detour from fragmentation (screengrabs, Twitter), ornamentation (digital manipulation of images), repetition (memes), or juxtaposition:

Tumblr “live-GIFFED” the debate last night, and responses were immediate and forthcoming—part of this “new” aesthetic could be said to argue for the speed at which these GIFs circulate, displacing the circuits of a lost high-art superhighway, and discombobulating the relationships between animate and inanimate, subject and object. Papapetros writes on William Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy (1907), and like Worringer, cites the polarity between abstraction and empathy as “the product of two different external worlds, both of which appear to be equally treacherous.” In this sense, thinking about the rapidity of satirical GIF assemblages last night, I can’t help but consider its relationship to early Italian Futurism, with its peculiar patriotism, embrace of directional tendencies of an object through space, and the heightened emotions surrounding technology, speed, and “the smear of madness.”

The majority of GIFs circulating last night and this morning on Tumblr revealed a pro-Biden bias—so much so that part of what became jolting for me was the role of their obvious use of humor in caricaturing Paul Ryan. For turn-of-the-century thinkers like Worringer, Theodor Lipps, and Sigmund Freud, empathy is complicated perceptual process with an important and problematic relationship to our ability to abstract ourselves as subjects and negotiate otherness through shared acknowledgements that defer our own objectification. For Freud, especially, the relation between empathy and humor was incisive, if complicated. Worringer, though, thought our modern sensibility thrived in a climate of “empathic abstraction.” I follow Papapetros’s dismissal of empathy as the immediate channel of animation, and find myself taken up by his account of how “every instance of animation is complemented by an equivalent occurrence of paralysis.”

I wonder, then, if part of the har-har at Ryan’s expense is a coming-to-terms with our emotional surplus, in an era where we are pre-disposed into a cult of abstraction, or even distraction. The unfathomable navigation of internet channels—to blog and reblog, “like” and retweet—permits the image to perform a sort of infrastructural violence. At the same time, the animated GIF itself seems unlike the myth of Daphne cited by Papapetros, where excitation reaches such a level that the subject instantly freezes and is unable to react. Although in suspended motion, both Biden and Ryan can’t escape the truncated movements of these clips. Overwhelmed by the possibilities of the Internet but bound by its penchant for fragmentation, is this kind of animation, as Papapetros claims, at the expense of its subjects, no matter our own political position? Or does GIF culture, acting in its prescient sphere of spontaneity, abide by a different set of rules?

“Animism spiritualized the object, whereas industrialization objectifies the spirits of men,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer. Papapetros takes on this notion, in a conclusion that might here be apt:

There are no truly animated objects in modernity, yet we are inundated by cartoons—mere semblances of animation that conform to Warburg’s “you live and do me nothing.” Perhaps then the paralysis or the “arthritic” effect of modern culture diagnosed by Horkheimer and Adorno is in the epistemological divisions that disallow all forms of being other than the human to live and have a language of their own.