When I was 15 I discovered anthropology at Maynooth University. I fell in love and I didn’t want to learn anything else. It called out to me in a way few subjects have since. Philosophy and nature are its parents. It is like a river, you never step in the same one twice.[i] Which is why it’s so uniquely suited to everything.
I managed to graduate from my undergrad, how, I’m still not certain. 2010 marked a tumultuous time in my life, and I only understand now how depression and anxiety played their parts. I spend 3 long years in the job market (miserably). Then a light came in 2013 when I was accepted for a Masters in anthropology and development, in my beloved Maynooth. So over 2 years, I studied my favourite subject again, this time solely.
Even with the seriousness of the subject matter, I still found my whimsical side, which I would like to share with you today. In 2014 I wrote an essay for a class by Dr Steve Coleman of Maynooth University. Rereading it has at times made me laugh out loud. Why he gave me a 2.1 on it I’ll never truly know. Shout out to Steve!
I’ve included some extracts below and it has been sufficiently altered for syntax and clarity. Also, Jenni of today has added some stuff for context and you can see that in italics. So if you’ve made it this far enjoy my stalwart friend!
Animation as Performance
The online world is an endless void of connected humanity. Projections of the self are possible online which are not available to us in the tactile world. Although there are situations where it is acceptable to enact your fandom in ‘real time,’ through ‘Cosplay,’ (the practice of dressing up as a character from a film, book, or video game, especially one from the Japanese genres of manga or anime) such as during Halloween, at conventions, or in theme parks; online personalities offer an outlet for people who want to explore an alternative version of themselves. This often takes place through participation in online communities such as MMO’s (an online video game which can be played by a very large number of people simultaneously). Manning & Gershon explain how the avatars make it possible for people to distance themselves from their bodies:
“…in the virtual worlds of Massively Multiple Online Games (MMOGs). Avatars are virtual embodiments that permit, at the outset, a complete divorce between the body of the offline player and the body of the online character and permit large numbers of offline players to interact socially within a single virtual world mediated by these online embodiments.”
Jesse & James (Pokémon)
Jesse & James (Cosplay)
Animation has rapidly become one of the most prevalent expressions of new media this century. Silvio provides a perspective on the popularity of animation:
“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.”
The topics I will discuss are YouTube and its relevant fandoms. People reinvent themselves online, they perform through the genre of another, and live action has even been transformed into animation. Silvio reinforces, “animation as an alternative model of and for human action in the world,” which is something anthropology seeks to link new animism.
Animism: Descola and Kohn
Descola provides a lens with which to look upon humanity, and the dual system of nature-culture, in his work ‘The Ecology of Others,’
“Making modern dualism the template for all the states of the world has thus lead anthropology to a particular form of academic Eurocentrism, which consists in believing not that the realities that humans objectivise are everywhere identical, but that our own manner of objectivising is universally shared.”
This thought process, although not new, challenges both the dualism of the Eurocentric (focusing on European culture or history to the exclusion of a wider view of the world; implicitly regarding European culture as pre-eminent) anthropology and the belief of anthropologist that all cosmologies (an account or theory of the origin of the universe) objectify the same way. Performance in animation can be adopted here in order to understand cosmologies that may appear to be outside the scope of animism, such as European cultures. Though the stories enacted often have a ‘first world perspective,’ the potential of the digital age to create analogies requires further exploration. Never before could we channel our likes, wants, and needs into something such as the video platform YouTube. YouTube is a nascent form of media which allows anyone to upload content, as long as it follows the community guidelines. The platform is relatively democratic, your views are the votes for what content is pushed to the fore.
The more we watch, the more YouTube calculates our interests through their algorithms, which in turn can generate advertisement revenue, incentivising the creators. YouTube also creates a market for animations. The consumers get what they want, which is more of their favourite animated characters. This is then exemplified by fans seeing themselves in the animated characters. It cannot be ignored and Silvio provides us with this concept:
“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.”
Here we can replace the terms ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ with ‘self’ and ‘world’. Which is what Descola was trying to produce in the ‘Ecology of Others.’ Western discourse believes it is complete and therefore other cosmologies should reflect it. It is pertinent however that we do not assume this. Each individual has their own system of meaning which they attach to the nature of their being. It seems both appropriate and fashionable in Western cultures to separate cultural being from natural being, as only one of those has the tools to survive within the systems capitalism and the neoliberal market have constructed. What must be understood is that all cognizant beings have a ‘self.’ This ‘self’ is only separated into sections by the environment they find themselves in such as their workplace or their community. What animation may give us is the picture of the human as a whole rather than the pieces we normally find ourselves in.
Fandoms, Youtubers, and Performance
We continue our journey through the internet with animation as our guiding trope. We encounter a phenomenon which lends itself to the anthropology as far back as Mauss, and gift exchange. With online community accounts offered for free, people can spend leisure time creating or enjoying fan art, which is more often than not, a reflection of some fandom or other.
The offering from YouTube comes from those who describe themselves as ‘Lets Plays.’ These YouTubers record themselves playing video games and their reactions to them. The most common reaction type is comedic, however, they vary. One such YouTuber calls himself Markiplier; his popularity exceeds 6 million subscribers. (Now with over 20 million as of June 2018). With this enormous fanbase dutifully watching his videos, he is able to make a living out of YouTube. Markiplier is known to play horror games in which he appears authentically frightened, which seems to be a large part of his allure. He is brave, according to himself. He uses his voice to give life to characters in the game. A memorable life-giving moment took place in his ‘lets play’ for an Amnesia custom story. He encounters a ‘tiny box’, pictured below, which he proceeds to call, ‘Tiny Box Tim.’ He announces he will bring Tiny Box Tim on adventures with him. Markiplier gives voice and life to an animation from a game. The first question that must be addressed is why? It would appear that humans give life to the inanimate; it seems to be innate for us to personify the world around us.
This event spawned an animation in which a cartoon Markiplier and Tiny Box Tim were inserted into the game, pictured in below, using an audio snippet from Markiplier’s original video. This 2.00-minute animation, which on Markiplier’s channel now has over 7 million views(now at 20 million), Was a made by a fellow YouTuber, and Markiplier fan called Lixian. This animation fascinating, not only as it awards the opportunity for the gamer Markiplier to appear inside the game, but it also gives life by means of animation to Tiny Box Tim. This character has gone on to appear in other Amnesia stories and animations with Markiplier. Markiplier set this in motion by imprinting himself onto Tiny Box Tim, which has spawned much fan art from Markiplier fans.
This is a wonderful example of Marcel Maus idea of gift exchange. Markiplier is free to use the channel to upload videos, he is compensated by YouTube for ad revenues in relation to time watched on his videos, allowing his viewers to watch for free. This is the result of a gift exchange between the YouTuber and the ‘fan’. This is described by Helleskon:
“…The gifts have value within the fannish economy in that they are designed to create and cement a social structure, but they themselves are not meaningful outside their context…”
So what we see unfolding is Markiplier’s video which provides comedy, in response fans that cannot compensate him in a conventional sense, create fan art such as the animation above. This performance is projected onto animations such as those during gameplay. Markiplier’s voice and personality is projected onto something inanimate, such as a tiny box.
This also is something which may affect Silvio’s belief that animated characters are the only ones that have lives of their own, as this is something live ‘characters’ such as Marilyn Monroe or Mick Jagger cannot have. In the case I have described above the animator Lixian became the live character of Markiplier by creating a representation of Markiplier through his own unique animation style, and use of Markiplier’s original audio. If we follow Silvio on this:
“When we follow an animated character we do much more than anthropormorpasize theme, we in fact, inject ourselves into them. Not only becoming like them, but becoming them, feeling what they are feeling and experiencing what they are feeling. Giving life and logic to something like an animated toy in Toy Story.”
Lixian created his interpretation of what happened, and now the animation gives us the possibility to feel not only what Markiplier felt but what Tiny Box Tim felt. Which pictured in below were; determination, joy, pride, and sadness.
The labour of humanity has allowed this to exist. Not only has a tiny box been animated, but it has been given the range of human emotions, making it real to us.
“Thanks to labour, humans extract their means of subsistence from their environment which they partially transform, metamorphosing themselves in the process in that they establish a social mediation with their fellow humans and with objects.”
Humans have this ability to personify the inanimate as we have a deep-rooted need to define the world. This is increasingly becoming the reality of play for children and adults alike. Play is now extended beyond childhood into a safe online environment, where we can build and define our relationships. We can see how we may like ourselves to be. The act of YouTubing as a ‘lets player’ has some interesting connotations when we consider this quote.
“Silvio points out that this is also true for moments of performance—all sorts of people enable actors to do their jobs. But when people interpret actors’ performance, they still focus on the embodied nature of the performance and the relationship of the actor to the role. Not so with animation. Animation brings this misrecognition in which a character is created by many to the foreground. So the labor underlying animation also contributes to the ways multiplicities can be conflated with an individual character…”
YouTubers are a phenomenon yet to be examined in great detail. YouTuber’s will often find animations of themselves, whether solicited or unsolicited, appearing from clips of their popular videos. This enables the fans to both insert themselves in the narrative of the YouTuber and also insert the YouTuber into the world of the game. The initial reaction of a YouTuber is as if they are in the game environment, which is the nature of gaming, whether you video yourself or not. By animating the moments, life has been brought to both the character of the YouTuber and the environment of the game.
Incredibly Manning & Gershon take Silvio animation tropes one step further adding an interesting dimension:
“What if this trope of animation sheds light on dilemmas otherwise obscured when one interprets interactions based on a self-divided by the tension between character and actor, between performance and true self?”
This offers something anthropology is always searching for in its discourse, especially when we consider the idea of the human having more than one self-described by Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’ and ‘field’ model. Although we are a complete person at all times when we are in certain situations we are enacting different versions of ourselves. Therefore interaction with animation is an interesting lens with which to view a person. For example, cosplayers, take an animated character, and embodied them, being both the character and themselves at the same time. Not only is this identifying mimicking an animation, but holding more than one reality in your mind at once.
We must remember we live in a world which is dominated by an online presence. Those of us online, have so many different identities, even in our use of emoticons to animate our emotions and reactions on what is a 2-dimensional space. It is undeniable that there are many versions of ourselves, and many use art to project themselves. A writer cannot separate themselves from their words, we now we have animations to enact ourselves through. They are templates waiting for someone to come along and ‘play’ them.
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- Philippe Descola. 2013. The Ecology of Others. Prickly Paradigm Press, LLC 5629 South University Avenue.
- Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Towards An Anthropology Beyond The Human. University of California Press. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London.
- Silvio, Teri. 2010. Animation: The New Performance? Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. American Anthropological Association.
- Manning, Paul & Gershon, Ilana. 2013. Animating Interaction. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 107–37. Indiana University & Trent University.
- Hellekson, Karen. 2009 A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture. Cinema Journal, Vol. 48, No. 4 , pp. 113-118. Published by: University of Texas Press Society for Cinema & Media Studies.
- Salzman, Philip Carl. 2002. On Reflexivity. American Anthropologist, Vol. 104, No. 3, pp. 805-813 Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association.
- Gibson, Priscilla. Dickens’s Uses of Animism. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 283-291 Published by: University of California Press.
[i] Pocahontas. Disney.
Interested in this? Have a go at this one!
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