Review: Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect

Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Mel Y. Chen. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Pp. xi + 312.

In Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, Mel Y. Chen examines animacy, defined in the linguistic sense as “the quality of liveness, sentience, or humanness of a noun or noun phrase,” in order to change the way we humans situate ourselves in terms of sexuality, race, and ability in the United States (24). They examine the hierarchical structure of animacy in order to contribute to disability studies, queer of color scholarship, and critical animal studies. They trace the movements in this “feral” archive to situate animacy as a mediating force between the human and inhuman, the animate and inanimate. They hope to foster a consideration of how “matter that is considered insensate, immobile, deathly, or otherwise ‘wrong’ animates cultural life in important ways” (2). By invoking their knowledge of cognitive linguistics, and with the aid of several self-created diagrams, Chen offers a new way of looking at the intersectionality of animacy, affect, and politics.

This book is organized into three parts – “Words,” “Animals,” and “Metals,” each of which contains two chapters that deal with specific attributes of animacy. The first section deals with dehumanization, the second with queering animality, and the third with metals (12).  This organization deliberately reflects the hierarchy that Chen seeks to destabilize by using animacies as the defining concept of their book. Their project ultimately succeeds in destabilizing these animacy structures, but the sheer size and variety of their archive at times diminishes the biopolitical lens through which they examine it.

In the first chapter of “Words,” Chen reflects on objectification and dehumanization, for which they provide a Marxian framework, using insults as examples. Of note for their overall project, their deconstruction of “macaca” and “turtle’s egg with zero IQ” demonstrates the abjection of the subject. These examples, they say, are “deeply imbued with affect” because they provoke an emotional response by deliberately relating the person being insulted first to an animal, and then to a human idea of a complete lack of intelligence (40). Furthering this point of blending of rational human and instinctual animal, Chen revisits the idea of language as proper to humans and suggests that language’s “absent materiality” is based on misconceptions about thought and cognition. Ultimately, they end this chapter by suggesting that animacy is the motivating factor behind the words and their affective resonance beyond simple signification.

Chen then examines the word “queer” and how its meaning has become “deadened” by losing some of its signifying power. In terms of the materiality of language, “queer” is both animated and de-animated. It is animated by its use and discussion in queer of color, trans, transnational, and disability scholarship, and deanimated by its depoliticized, inert national identity in the United States. “Queer” is a demonstration of how language linguistically employs animacy and inertia. Chen uses this word to mark any connections that destabilize the heteronormative hierarchy.

In the “Animals” section, Chen directly questions ecologies as “imagined systems” of animacy hierarchies in which animals are excluded from language, specifically examining human-animal relationships, “racialized animality,” biological sex, and gendered ways that animals are identified and discussed (90). The third chapter features a scattered archive: the character of Fu Manchu described as feline, a common stereotype of Chinese men (highlighting the ways that those seen as Other are racialized, animal figures); the case of Travis the chimpanzee, which occurred in 2009; and late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century advertisements from the United States that made the raced body animal. Chen concludes by asking the reader to treat this chapter as “an invitation to consider queer animality…as a site of investment…morphing time and raciality” (122). This direct address is a rhetorical tactic that Chen employs often throughout to organize the main points of their argument and highlight the questions that they are hoping to answer. This is one of the main strengths of the book; by framing their work in terms of the questions they are attempting to answer, Chen allows the reader to follow the connections they make between their case studies.

Chen’s fourth chapter talks more explicitly about the “proper boundaries” that surround both nonhuman animals and humans (128). They mention Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I am” and his gendering of the cat who gazes at his nakedness, as an example that highlights the “fear” that a sexless animal can inspire (148). Domestic animals have to be gendered in order to establish proper boundaries for them. Chen also discusses Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the “body without organs” to coin the notion of “animals with/out genitals” that have mixed affectivities (155). There is repulsion against a boundless being without genitals, but there is also hope for the self-made human. Chen then explains the different “trans-” in this chapter emphasizing their role in cultural production. They gesture to the biopolitical implications of biological sex of animals that are spayed or neutered, but never really makes explicit what those implications might be for transness as it relates to animacy.

The final section on “Metals” offers an examination of two: lead and mercury and how they manage, without being animate, to animate global discussion of specific types of human and animal bodies. Chen starts with a discussion of the lead poisoning scare in the United States, in which toys made in China were reported to contain high traces of lead, and thus poisoning the white, middle-class American children. The globalized nature of the toy industry was blamed, and although China is not the only place where lead comes from, it was identified as the source of the contagion. This fact solidified the national identity of the United States as against China’s “yellowness,” “biosecurity failure,” and the “possibility of terrorism” (172). The rhetoric of toxicity and contagion spread through conversations about lead poisoning stressed the way child bodies get poisoned, usually through licking. In their examination of the popular Thomas the Tank Engine toy at the center of the “lead panic” in 2007, Chen analyzes the train’s, and thus lead’s, journey to the white, middle-class child in the United States. This journey demonstrates how lead can contaminate healthy, human (racially imagined as white) bodies and drag them down the animacy hierarchy. Lead, in turn, becomes animate, given agency to infect bodies. This section is particularly convincing in its examination of the visual rhetoric that both China and the United States employed in discussing lead.

The last chapter of this section incorporates Chen’s own experience of illness, caused by mercury toxicity, to highlight “poisoned affect” and how it deconstructs the subject/object positioning of the toxin/intoxicated (195). They analyze their mercury poisoning alongside ideas of queer sexuality, mapping “intoxication” as an affective state that is unstable and uncertain between bodies. This altered affect is demonstrated by the author’s search for comfort after a day loaded with toxic hazards. When returned home and greeted by their lover, they wonder who they found tactile comfort with: their lover or their couch. In these moments of uncertainty, they are able to recognize both bodies as offering comfort, and although they suggest that confusing the two is “inexcusable,” they are able to intimately connect with an inanimate object (203). They thus demonstrate the porous nature of animacy. Even what we consider toxins, which are always surrounded by negative affects, are better understood as certain conditions that generate effects that are not always so easy to pigeonhole as negative.

In the afterword, Chen discusses the BP oil spill and Miyazaki’s film Ponyo to illustrate how essential it is to establish a framework of animacy that “encodes forces without being beholden to the failing categories of life and nonlife” (227). Ponyo provides them a very explicit example of the movement of the animate and inanimate. The titular character Ponyo is a fish who wishes to become human, undergoing a transformative process that concludes with her being human but still connected to the ocean. By ending with Ponyo, this archive foregrounds the need for new materialisms right now by offering a film that shows the ocean and its inhabitants in relationships with humans across animacy hierarchies.

Ultimately, Chen’s analysis of their archive suggests rather than insists on biopolitical, racial, and queer affective readings; because of this lack of insistence, a reader might lose the thrust of their argument along the way. There are times in the text when examples that illustrate the points Chen makes overshadow the arguments themselves. However, they make it clear that their argument is not just rhetorical. The hierarchical model of our culture needs to be replaced by structures of feeling that respect difference without marking it as less.

Melinda Borchers