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01.04.

2007
Dear Lucy
(....)
On another issue, Yar Habnegnal, our favourite self-professed ‘neo-con performance
artist and agent provocateur’, sent me this short critique of the recent animated
film, Happy Feet (2006). Extrapolating on your use of the term ‘animalities’, he
calls the piece ‘Faunaphiliac Animatalities’, referring to ‘the human affinity for
“animated-animal” icons’. I must admit that I am a bit disappointed that his
analysis doesn’t extend to the complex worlds of interactive online games that
many of us periodically inhabit, or to the more rewarding creation of cognition-
based parallel-life personae. Mainstream animation is limited by a narrative
univalence that reduces ontological questions to spectacle hermeneutics, and we
now require a coherent ontological articulation that addresses these avataric
‘universes-in-universes’. I know Yar has a lot to say on this subject from our
recent conversations at his home in Lahore, and I look forward to his promised
theorisation of these at a later time. Habnegnal’s post-Marxist analysis of
base/superstructure is useful in the analysis of animal predation and predation
avoidance behaviours in mainstream animation and in animated avatar games, such as
Second Life. At any rate, here is his short piece of writing, in the hope it has
some relevance to your topic of ‘animalities’.
Yours Truly,
LGB

Habnegnal writes:
… Faunaphilia in mainstream Hollywood animation obviously goes back at least to
early Disney and Ub Iwerks of the 1920s, and subsequently Warner Brothers’ Looney
Tunes, but the recent animated film Happy Feet, by the Australian company Animal
Logic and Australian director George Miliotis Miller (author and director of the
Mad Max series and Babe, which starred a talking pig) breaks some interesting new
ground.

The plot winches around a conventional ‘nature versus industrialisation’ dualism,


in which the fish are being over-trawled by massive factory ships, thereby
reducing the food supplies of the penguins. The flock singles out Mumble, one of
its own mutant fledglings, as the source of the crisis since he cannot sing like
the other young penguins (‘A penguin without a heart-song is hardly a penguin at
all,’ proclaims the penguin singing teacher). Instead of singing, Mumble
(presumably a pun on ‘mambo’) tap-dances R&B numbers in the style of Vaudeville
and Broadway (‘I wouldn’t do that around folks, son. ... It just ain’t penguin,’
his Elvis-crooning father admonishes). The elder penguin leaders assume Mumble’s
aberrant behavior must have caused displeasure to ‘The Great Penguin’, leading to
the shortage of their staple, fish. Mumble is also anatomically idiosyncratic:
perennially immature and covered with fluffy down well after the other young
penguins have grown adult feathers (an immaturity reminiscent of—though not self-
imposed like—Oscar in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, who also relies on rhythm to
communicate). His tap-dancing produces disgust, then awe, then finally recognition
and acceptance from all the penguins. While penguin ‘speech’ is frustratingly
indecipherable to humans, the percussion of ‘happy’ penguin feet on ice does seem
to transmit emotions of affinity (and apparently complex ecological data as well)
across spec-ial borders. Mumble is convinced that the ‘aliens’ (humans) with their
massive ships are the cause of the disappearing fish, and sets out on a ‘mythic-
hero’ journey of self-discovery and survival (with echoes of Road Warrior and
countless stories of teen prodigality) to prove his hypothesis. Meanwhile, the
homo sapiens are oblivious to the mounting environmental disaster. The penguins
serve in the story as stand-ins for the proverbial canary in the mineshaft, but
instead of the canary’s sudden silence alerting miners to the presence of gas, it
is Mumble’s rhythmic tap-dancing in an aquarium that alerts the humans to their
profligate over-consumption of fish.
Having fitted him with a transmitter, a group of scientists follow Mumble back to
his ‘people’, presumably to see if R&B tap is a mutation in one individual,
learned or instinctual behaviour of the whole colony. With his re-entry into his
social milieu, Mumble’s rhythmic tap-dancing, which had been culturally
denigrated as subversive to both the community’s traditional culture and religious
beliefs, suddenly catches on to become a mass behaviour. All the penguins dance
for the human scientists, with Mumble implicitly taking over as the new leader,
and the Christian gospel roots of R&B displacing the former conventions of belief
in ‘The Great Penguin’. For their part, the scientists are duly amazed that tap-
dancing has been adopted by a colony of Antarctic Emperor penguins, and somehow
get the vibe that the Busby Berkeley number is a signifier for human over-
harvesting of the fish and looming starvation for the penguin colony. This sudden
opening of communication between the two species leads to a ban on open-water
fishing at the UN. On the one hand, the mass choreography is reminiscent of mass
rallies—Nuremburg, May Day in Red Square and Tiananmen Square, the American Rose
Bowl and the Singapore National Day Parade. On the other, it calls up scenes of
white explorers ‘discovering’ the ritual celebrations of ‘primitive’, generally
black cultures, depicted in films such as King Kong—a trope also used in the
cartoon, Madagascar (2005). In this case, the scientists are portrayed as utterly
benign and curious, and the survival needs of the penguins are represented as
consonant with global ecological science.

But we must assume that the sudden appearance of homo sapien at a penguin colony
also augurs the end of their ‘wildness’ and inaugurates a new period of human
domination. When the electronic tracking device on Mumble’s back is detected by
the other penguins, one of the elder penguins accurately assesses the coming
subjugation of the colony: ‘You led them here? You turned them on your own kind?’
Survival trumps self-determination—a position faced by many of the world’s
endangered species which have been ‘colonised’ and placed in reserves or zoos.

Writing here in Lahore, a global nexus where First-World desire for self-
determination collides with Third-World pacification, my interest in this film
takes the form of a two-fold inquiry into the manner that we use representations
(such as animation) to interpellate other humans and animals cultures. In the case
of the animals depicted in our cartoons, we do this by conferring (human)
subjectivity upon them—in effect nailing them to the very cross of identitarian
interpellation upon which we find ourselves crucified daily. It is through our
submission to this process of representing identity that our
subjugation/subjection/subjectification is accomplished, and it is through
animation, film, art and literature that this same condition is so effectively
imposed upon other species.

Secondly, I am interested in an ontological inquiry into the relationship between


Bergsonian notions of duration and vitalism that attached themselves to the early
technology of ‘moving pictures’ at the birth of the film age, and the anima
(Latin: ‘soul’ or ‘life force’) at the root of the term ‘animation’. Vitalism,
soul and life force of course lead to related inquiries into the phenomenology of
fascism on the one hand and the parallel performativity of cognitive life-forms
and cyborg/avatars (and their relationship to earlier screen culture) on the
other. I will leave these ontological issues for another time, and focus for a few
minutes on the epistemological issues of faunaphiliac animatalities (that is, the
animated representations of human love for other animal species) and subject
formation.

When watching Happy Feet, I found myself musing that a year after accepting Christ
as their personal saviour, the Emperor penguins have now discovered that they got
soul (or two souls to be precise: ‘Soul’ in the sense of black soul music, and
anima). Did one epiphany lead to the other? A close reading reveals that beneath
the saccharine personifications afflicting the Emperor penguin (aptenodytes
forsteri) in this cartoon are three significant cultural issues: first, the manner
in which (homo sapien) subjectivity is conferred upon another species; second, the
economics of that conferment; and third, the use of music (rhythm) as the medium
of conference.

Penguin subjectivity is grounded in economies of consumption, as they fit into the


food chain between the larger Southern Ocean predators: leopard seals (Hydrurga
leptonyx), southern giant petrels (Macronetes giganteus), skua (Catharacta
maccormicki) and orca (Orcinus orca) on the one hand; and their source of food,
sub-ice fish, (Pagothenia borchgrevinki. or Bald notothen) on the other.
Curiously, the larger predators are provided with the attributes of individuation
and agency by the human animators (corresponding presumably to our human view of
our own alpha-predator position in the food chain), while the fish are denied both
of these attributes. Rather than being subjectified, they are objectified and
abjectified, providing the material base upon which the spectacle of subjectivity
as cultural superstructure can be mounted and displayed.

In many of the new 3D animal animations, Hollywood’s obsession with optical


mimesis carries in its wake other corresponding realist attributes. For example,
to be ‘real’, the animal-protagonists being anthropomorphised also need to be seen
to eat, shit, sleep and desire (well, maybe not shit on screen). But it would be
potentially horrifying for small children in the audience to be subjected to Nemo,
for instance, in the film Finding Nemo (2003) tearing into and gulping down
smaller life forms that also have individual personalities, calling forth
nightmares of adults engorging themselves on their kids. This taboo of the cartoon
jungle was almost broken in Madagascar, when Alex the lion, used to being fed
steak on a schedule by his zoo handlers, almost consumed his friend Marty the
Zebra when they found themselves shipwrecked on the ‘wild’ island Madagascar. The
problem of Alex’s desire for raw meat was resolved when a group of penguins
introduced him to sushi, once again positioning fish at the anonymous base of the
food-chain. Of significance to the topic of animalities is this categorical
tendency to subjectify superstructures and to reify the base.

In Happy Feet, the problem is resolved in a similar manner, by conferring


subjectivity onto the penguins and larger creatures, but not onto the smaller fish
who are massified as the common food source, even when caught individually.
Penguin predation is made palatable through the reification of their food. All the
fish look the same; they lack personal attributes, do not speak and presumably
have no language. And when they die we never see emotions, expressions of pain or
blood.

But this template runs into an interesting paradox at its extremity. In one
revealing scene, the fish are revealed as totalised commodities when Mumble fights
off a group of petrels and skua for the remains of a small fish that he then
presents as a gift to his loved one, Gloria. For those of us who have already been
conditioned to the subjectification of fish by Finding Nemo, it is difficult to
now accept a hierarchy in which fish are treated as dead gifts and bird feed.
Rather than simply swallowing the death of the fish as the demise of an anonymous
cartoon trope, the audience may be inclined to see this ingestion of a member of
a previously subjectified species as an assassination.

There may, however, be an upside to this tendency. Our awareness of it might


productively lead us to the recognition of animal branding as a pragmatic (if
ideologically problematic) methodology in the fight to preserve endangered
species. Once individuated, a species obtains in our mind a ‘culture’ and thereby
migrates from base into 'superstructure’ in the manner of the ‘charismatic mega-
fauna’ (the big cats, elephants, whales, etc.). We value the songs of whales, the
intelligence of apes, the loyalty of wolves, or now, the family values of Emperor
penguins. These cultural signs indicate that we have distinguished these species
from the base and have assigned them some degree of anthropomorphic subjectivity.
But adopting commodity reification as method also diverts abjectification toward
yet another smaller species, less charismatic species such as plankton. Will we
next see a film about heroic plankton, perhaps defending their children against
huge ravaging Bald notothen?

But there is another ethical problematic in this algebra of survival and


representation. The unspoken subtext of these animal representations are of course
the discourses of identity: gender, sexuality, race, class, colonialism. Perhaps
it would have been more honest if Mumble took off his penguin mask to reveal a
black dancer, after his tap numbers that so entertained the predominately white
audiences in the aquarium and the white scientists in Antartica. His
subjugation/subjectification was both physical and linguistic, providing a spot-on
illustration of Lyotard’s notion of the ‘differend’, in which the abject are
simultaneously interpellated and forced into silence by a cultural, physical or
economic differential that reduces communication to unisonance. Mumble is
appropriately named after the mumbling child who is developmentally constrained
from speech; the slave or servant economically constrained from ‘talking back’.
Lyotard argues that ‘[t]he differend is the unstable state and instant wherein
something which must be able to be put into phrases cannot yet be.’ His examples
of this condition include revisionist denial of the reality of the Nazi gas
chambers because of the absence of survivors offering eyewitness accounts, and the
dilemma faced by a group of Australian aboriginals constrained by ritual
traditions from speaking for land rights in court. Indeed, as an Australian
production, the about-to-be colonised penguins in Happy Feet recall Aboriginal and
Pacific Island colonisation, in particular the cultural indoctrinations into white
language, music and beliefs applied to the approximately 100,000 ‘stolen
generation’ of Aboriginal children between 1910 and 1971. Applying the lessons we
learn from Happy Feet, perhaps if the Jews had learned to tap-dance mutely in the
gas chambers they too might have been saved.
... v.o.a. ...
Yar Habnegnal

BIOS
With a chequered past reputed to include roles as student radical, CIA agent,
white supremacist-queer performance artist, and most recently, insurgency expert
advising the current administration of George W. Bush, Yar Habnegnal’s critical
writings appropriately focus on the semiotics of power in popular culture. He
currently resides in Lahore, Pakistan and Singapore.

LGB (Lan Gen Bah) holds a Chinese passport but lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts
and researches cognitive temporality, extreme emotive states, ideological and
sexual interpellation.