Animating interaction

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Paul Manning and Ilana Gershon. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.005

Animating interaction

Paul MANNING, Trent University

Ilana GERSHON, Indiana University

This article engages with Ten Silvio’s 2010 challenge to treat animation as a central trope for understanding the relationship between selves and media. We discuss how animation can illuminate aspects of interactions that performance, the current dominant trope, can not—such as addressing what it means to be human when what distinguishes the human from the nonhuman is how one is being controlled. We discuss how focusing on animation can shed light on social interactions both in virtual worlds and with media practices in which online and offline exchanges are inextricably intertwined.

Keywords: animation, performance, avatars, virtual worlds, breakups, new media

This article begins with a set of “what if questions: what if we moved beyond performance as the dominant trope for addressing the relationship between selves and new media? What if we drew from animation instead as a productive metaphorical lens that people use to explain their lived experiences of new media under contemporary capitalism? What if the paradoxes inherent in having a coherent character created by a team of inkists, colorists, voice actors, and so on offers a useful take on the trials and tribulations of being a mediated self? 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? These are what if questions inspired by Teri Silvio’s 2010 article “Animation: The new performance?” where she argues that animation as a trope calls attention to some of the many ways in which people currently experience being a self when surrounded by a capitalism dominated by brands and flexible corporate selves. For the purposes of this article, Silvio offers a suggestive vantage point for analyzing the contemporary ways people use technologies designed for mediating selves such as avatars and Facebook profiles.

In this article, we compare people’s experiences with virtual worlds and people’s experiences using media to accomplish the tasks of daily life to see what animation reveals that performance has obscured. We want to explore how animation as a trope invites analysts to ask a different set of questions of ethnographic material, especially when new media is at the center of the ethnographic material. To do so, we turn to two distinct types of social interactions using new media: virtual worlds in which the offline and online are, for the most part, kept distinct; and social media sites in which offline and online practices are seen as inextricably intertwined. Through this comparison, we address the ever reoccurring exuberance or anxieties that many Euro-Americans experience as social change when new media is introduced, all of which have at their root an engagement with changes in participant structures or affordances. social change is seen as imminent when there are changes in who participates in the conversation and in what roles, or how technology enables one to interact with one’s surroundings. In addition, throughout the article, we discuss the possibility that ideas of performance themselves are shifting with the introduction of various types of digital media. New media ideologies along with new media ecologies and new structures of capitalism have transformed animation into an emergent trope, but one that is still haunted by performance.

To explore what animation as a trope has to offer, we first discuss Teri silvio and Erving Goffman’s theoretical contributions to this set of questions. We then turn to two ethnographic examples, one that explores the use of avatars in the virtual world of Ryzom, and a second that explores the use of new media to end romantic relationships among US undergraduates. In doing so, we are illustrating how a turn to animation can shed analytical light on two distinct ways of interacting using contemporary new media: how people use new media to create alternate (virtual) social spaces and how people use new media to accomplish necessary social tasks in daily offline life.

We want to stress that turning to animation instead of performance as a frame is not meant as a critique of performance theorists. We are not suggesting that scholars who think with performance have got it all wrong. Rather, we want to encourage anthropologists to add to their analytical repertoire by considering how animation as a trope leads both to historicizing performance theory and to introducing new questions about how selves, capitalism, and media are intertwined.

Silvio’s animation

In her article “Animation: The new performance?” Teri Silvio (2010) proposes that there are at least two major structuring tropes in the contemporary moment, both of which are dramaturgical, and available for people to understand how one can occupy a speaking role under contemporary forms of capitalism: performance and animation. Silvio wrote this article to suggest that, while performance has been a long-standing trope that both people on the ground and scholars have found useful for addressing how selves inhabit identities and interact, animation is becoming an equally productive trope under contemporary forms of capitalism. Silvio does not suggest that animation as a metaphor for combining many variations of creative behavior is new, far from it. Forms of animation, encompassing “a range of technologies and skills that are used to create the ‘illusion of life’” in the guise of puppets, dolls, and masks (Silvio 2010: 426), have long been a vehicle for reflecting upon striated agency (e.g., Bogatyrev 1983; Veltrusky 1983; Shershow 1995). She does, however, argue that the current ways in which both performance and animation are good to think with has much to do with how people experience work, relationships, and creativity. In our ethnographic examples, capitalism remains in the background, and is not as central a focus as it is for Silvio.

Both performance and animation need to be analyzed as historically specific structuring tropes. Silvio argues that each trope leads people to dwell on different aspects of the laboring self. A focus on performance encourages people to explore how a self inhabits an embodied character that then interacts with other similarly embodied characters dialogically. That is to say, there is a presumed gap between actor and role that motivates analyses of identity and agency. This ever-present reflexive distance between the self and the role suggests questions about which possible roles are available in a given context, including how particular bodies enable or limit what identities can be enacted. But performance does not only channel attention to the relationship between actor and role, it also emphasizes how inhabited roles engage with one another. This interaction can be planned or winged, structured or spontaneous. in short, performance emphasizes dichotomies of “interactive communication, the materiality of the actor’s body, the visible gap between actor and role, scriptedness versus improvisation, social reproduction versus social transformation” (Silvio 2010: 424).

If performance calls attention to actors and their roles, animation calls attention to the many people involved in turning an object or drawing into something that appears to move, think, and feel. Animation does not involve a one-on-one relationship between character and actor, social persona and (true) self. instead, animation is about multiple contributions toward creating the effect of a unified living character. Depending on the form of animation, these contributions are made by inkists, colorists, and voice actors, or carvers, painters, and puppeteers. Yet they are also made by the audience, the audience’s imagination helps make the fantasy of a living, moving object convincing. Rather than one-on-one, animation is a relationship of many-to-one. in addition, animation calls attention to the media and techniques involved, emphasizing the materials and skills required to give the impression of life. in short, animation involves dichotomies between multiplicity and unity, “body and soul, manipulation and free will, objective reality and subjective imagination” (Silvio 2010: 427).

Silvio argues that these two structuring tropes find ready homologies in contemporary capitalist divisions of labor, defining different kinds of work that are stereotypically divided along gender lines. This linkage is particularly clear in the case of performance in service work. At the same time as performance studies was beginning to see gender identity as a performance, there emerged specific feminine gendered forms of work (pink collar work) whose workers explicitly analyzed their own jobs as “emotion work” and “acting a role” (Silvio 2010: 425). Silvio further illustrates this point in a discussion of a Japanese online novel/manga/anime/film, Train man (Densha Otoko), where the stereotypically gendered opposition between emotional work (performance, communication, feminine) and programming work (animation, technical, masculine) makes the two main characters of the film have complementary gendered forms of labor. These different forms of work also define different romantic personas. The female character, “Hermes,” an Office Lady (OL) whose work focuses on communicating with a firm’s foreign clients, does her own emotional work both at the job and also in teaching the geeky “Train Man” “literally how to act—how to play the role of boyfriend, how to dress and order in a restaurant, how to express his feelings verbally,” just as he reciprocates by helping her navigate the world of technology (Silvio 2010: 434). The romantic persona of the Train Man, however, is almost an animated composite formed from the collective advice of a virtual network of anonymous intimate strangers of 2chan (a Japanese textboard website on which site the original narrative itself was also constructed collectively).

Goffman’s performance, Goffman’s animation

The two potential strands of analysis, performance and animation, as Silvio points out, stem from different dramaturgical metaphors. Here we turn to Erving Goffman, whose ethnomethodological approach contains both sets of metaphors that we are extending in this essay. Goffman’s early work in developing the performance paradigm is well-known; what is less well-known is that Goffman’s later work begins to explore a set of analyses that begin to move in the direction of tropes of animation. Goffman’s early work, Presentation of self in everyday life (1959) explores the ways that the categories of dramaturgy of live actors on a stage can be an analytical resource for the investigation of everyday life, and in particular the way that blackboxed notions of authentic self and identity can be resolved into fine-grained performances. This dramaturgical approach, the beginnings of what Silvio calls “the Performance Paradigm,” has certainly been influential in studies of performance of identity in online environments as well (virtually all the authors in the volume Reinventing ourselves: Contemporary concepts of identity in virtual worlds [Peachey and Childs 2011] make use of Goffman 1959). However, in his late works Goffman (1974) sometimes moved beyond a dramaturgical metaphor based on a live actor on stage to use metaphors from other domains, placing the relationship between a puppeteer or ventriloquist and a puppet, a voice and a sounding box, a chess player and his playing pieces, on a continuum with the actor and their body. Goffman’s metaphor of performance slides into a metaphor of animation, and with this change, certain analytic possibilities come to light and the analytic vocabulary changes as even live actors are treated not with a metaphor of performance but a metaphor of animation. Interestingly, this later work of Goff-man’s has been most influential within the field of linguistic anthropology (especially the chapter “Frame analysis of talk” in Frame analysis [1974]), but the analytic changes in that part of Goffman’s work took much longer to register.

One of the main refinements of the performance paradigm we find in Goffman’s later work (1974, 1981) is that to better deal with linguistic performances, he introduces a fine-grained decomposition of integral speech event participant roles like “speaker” and “addressee” into a “participant framework” of role partials. Goffman’s concept that every communicative interaction has a participant framework has been a useful starting point for analyzing how a medium contributes to shaping people’s communicative exchanges. Goffman himself does not focus on the role a channel of communication plays in shaping a participant framework, although different mediated exchanges feature from time to time in his discussion of participant frameworks. His emphasis, instead, is on how every communicative interaction is a compilation of different relationships or stances each participant has to all the utterances in a given conversational exchange. The roles people adopt toward an utterance can shift rapidly, even within the same conversational turn. Roles here are defined as people’s relations simultaneously to utterances and to each other.1

Goffman’s innovation is to argue that the roles of speaker and hearer are far too reductive for understanding the number of roles at play in an interaction. He suggests instead that as an initial step, one could analytically decompose the speaker into a fluid and continually reconfigured set of participant roles. Goffman suggests three primary roles: animator, author, and principal (although linguistic anthropologists have since suggested there is a far wider range of possible roles, see Levinson 1988 and Irvine 1996).2 An animator, according to Goffman, is the one who speaks the words, “the talking machine, the body engaged in acoustic activity” (Gofffman 1981: 144). This role is largely about producing the sounds that constitute the utterance, so Goffman also suggests that the role of animator can be filled by machines, such as the telephone. The author is the one who selects the words that constitute the utterance, “someone who has selected the sentiments that are being expressed and the words in which they are encoded” (Gofffman 1981: 144). The last role, the principal, is the person, social category, or institution responsible for the utterance. The principal is the social entity that “the individual speaks, explicitly or implicitly, in the name of …” (Goffman 1981: 145). In any social interaction, people can change who or what is animator, author, or principal of an utterance rapidly; for example, by animating someone else’s words by quoting the lyrics of a song in the middle of an intimate chat with a friend about a recent heartbreak. Or one can remain the animator and author in a single speech but change one’s principal by switching whether one is speaking as a neighbor or the chair of a local community association.

When most scholars make use of participant frameworks to analyze interactions, they turn to these three primary roles for the speaker (or some analytical decomposition of these three roles) and discuss listeners, as Goffman does, in terms of being ratified or unratified, for example. Yet in Frame analysis he introduces a fourth term, the figure, that until recently has been somewhat neglected (but see, for example, Agha 2005 on “characterological figures”). Goff-man suggests “figure” as a term for a series that is initially provisionally defined as a “make-believe person” or “stage character.” As he ultimately defines it, the term “figure” denotes any material configuration that can be animated by an actor or actress. Sometimes the actor or actress uses their own appropriately costumed body to animate figures like “a historical personage, a goddess, a zombie, a vampire” (Gofffman 1974: 523). At other times the figure is voiced from offstage, in which case the actor or actress might animate a nonbodily configuration that could include “a ghost, a stuffed animal, a loquacious chair, and so forth” (ibid.: 523). As

Goffman notes, the term “character” would be an equally apt term, “except that it carries a bias for the human form” (ibid.).

While the category of figure has sometimes been used productively in recent work (for example Manning 2004; Agha 2005), we believe that the significance of the category of figure lies not merely in its immediate analytic significance but in the way it points to a sea change in Goffman’s work from metaphors of performance (which make use of the first three categories) to one of animation (which develops the opposition between animator and animated figure as a central opposition). We might suggest that the slowness of uptake of the category of figure analytically might be related to the way that using this category requires moving beyond a familiar performance paradigm into a somewhat unfamiliar animation paradigm.

Crucially, this new animation analytic, which places human and nonhuman (dramaturgic) actors on a continuum, forces Goffman to begin to rethink his conceptualizations of humanity and animacy, questions that do not arise within a paradigm like performance where all the actors are human. Once he has introduced the term “figure” into his production format, Goffman begins to treat the animator as a human (he uses the example of an actress) that animates a further nonhuman, a figure (Goffman 1974: 523). What is interesting here is that the animator, contrasted with a nonhuman figure, becomes an implicitly animate (because animating anthropomorphic role. By contrast, in Forms of talk (1981), the animator, in opposition to the more stereotypically human speakerly roles of principal and author, is suggestively described using insistent nonhuman techno-morphic metaphors. An explicitly Cartesian mind/body dualism projected onto the human re-presents vocal gestures as those of a clockwork automaton or puppet, which is placed on a continuum with other technomorphic animators like the loudspeaker or telephone:

In canonical talk, one of the two participants moves his lips up and down to the accompaniment of his own facial (and sometimes bodily) gesticulations, and words can be heard issuing from the locus of his mouth. His is the sounding box in use, albeit in some actual cases he can share this physical function with a loudspeaker system or a telephone. in short, he is the talking machine, a body engaged in acoustic activity, or if you will, an individual active in the role of utterance production. He is functioning as an “animator.” (Goffman 1981: 144)

In Frame analysis (1974), Goffman humanizes the animator and displaces the non-humanity of the medium onto another role, from the animator to the figure. Here Goffman explicitly moves away from his more usual dramaturgical metaphors of performance and uses a trope of animation, so that the (human) animator animates a (nonhuman) figure: his examples of animation introduce a series of human (animator) / nonhuman (figure) dyads starting with the realm of performing objects (conventionally considered to be a media: puppeteer/ventriloquist; doll/puppet; chess player / chess pieces or “men”) and moving to performers animating their own body. By the time he is done, he has seemingly assimilated all these nonhumans to the performance paradigm, but one might suggest that one could also read this against the grain as potentially flat ontology, placing human and nonhuman actors on a continuum. Since Goffman never truly left behind his Cartesian dualisms and Durkheimian sociologism, we think he may have been reluctant to do this.3 In this article, we are going to build on this tantalizing aside of Goffman’s by exploring how the participant frameworks made possible by current communicative technology allows people on the ground to compare and contrast performance and animation, as Teri Silvio suggests.

Participant frameworks, participant structures

Goffman’s concept of participant frameworks is particularly useful analytically as a beginning point for understanding many of the ways in which people are exploring the communicative possibilities of different media. For starters, participant framework as a concept encourages analysts to unpack the various roles that might be laminated into the form of a unitary speaker. Different actual people often participate to allow this “unitary speaker” to appear efficacious, especially in interactions when not everyone is copresent (for example, when Max asks his best friend Zach to break up with Lindsey on Max’s behalf. Despite Zach’s assistance, Max in the subsequent breakup stories appeared as the unitary actor initiating the breakup). Different technologies allow different participant frameworks, so some allow many more listeners than speakers to engage in a conversational exchange, while others encourage one-to-one conversation. Other technologies allow new roles in conversational exchange, such as the telephone operator’s role when telephones were first widely distributed. Some technologies allow new relationships to established roles, such as the television host to a televised variety show (modeled on vaudeville shows). in short, technologies can add to the number of participants in an interaction, as well as change the kinds of participants involved. But technologies can also decompose the integral unity of participants like speaker and hearer analytically into different role fractions. These role fractions can then be distributed across multiple participants (for example, a person with a megaphone decomposes a speaker into human source or originator and a technological animator, and at the same time increases the number of people potentially in the audience by an order of magnitude).

One of the crucial elements of participant frameworks is how the participants themselves understand all the different ways that one can adopt certain participatory roles, leave them, invite others to taken on certain roles, or prevent them from doing so over the course of a speech event. Susan Philips (1983), in her ethnography of schooling Native American students on the Warm Springs reservation, illustrates how crucial this reflexive awareness is for people’s engagement with different participant frameworks (which Philips calls participant structures). Philips was interested in how social inequalities emerged when Anglo-American teachers imposed culturally inappropriate participant structures on Native American students. one of her examples of an inappropriate participant structure is how Anglo-American teachers often require Native American students to seek permission to talk. In the Native American communities she studied, only the speaker determined when the conversational turn taking should begin. “In general Indian change of speakers involves less control over the turns of others and more control over one’s own turn” (Philips 1983: 59). This was not the case in the Anglo-American classrooms, either formally or informally. In formal classroom contexts, the teacher was supposed to control who spoke when. In informal contexts, the current speaker often determined when the next speaker would begin by ending their turn (and marking the ending of their conversational turn through inflection and word choice), with the tacit expectation that one of the listeners would then begin to speak. As Native American students grew older, they increasingly stopped participating in classrooms, alienated by the Anglo-American teachers’ expectations that a single authority figure controlled how and when communication should take place in a classroom. Here, what in earlier eras anthropologists might have called a cultural clash, is a clash of reflexive understandings of how one should occupy different participatory roles in an Anglo-American classroom’s participant structure. In comparing performance and animation as tropes, we are pointing to different reflexive understandings one can have about how a participant structure functions, and thus, perhaps, another potential clash of reflexive understandings.

Silvio’s performance, Silvio’s animation

Under the current capitalist regimes, animation and performance have entered into a mutually constitutive relationship—ideas about animation are partially informed by the ways that, as a medium, it is not performance. Silvio outlines a number of different ways in which this occurs: for example, relations between fans and a character are not structured along lines of role models and emulators (in terms of identity or identification) but rather in terms of “projected objects of desire” (Silvio 2010: 429; see also Galbraith 2009 for desire as “virtual potential”) (that is, in terms of alterity and desire). She also describes how, unlike in performance where the emphasis is on how expressive the performance has been, in animation the emphasis is often on the audience’s interpretation. As a result, animated characters are often underdetermined, or incomplete.

How does this switch from performance to animation relate to forms of capitalism? One way it might apply, as Silvio points out, is the relationship between multiplicity and unity at the heart of animation. It is a relatively commonplace misrecognition nowadays that one is engaging with a single author when in fact one is engaging with multiple authors. Enjoying animated characters often requires misrecognizing the means of their production, interpreting the work of many as the work of one. 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 (Silvio 2010: 428).

Within the world of Japanese animation, Thomas Lamarre usefully locates different styles of animation, which are correlated with ideological different takes on this basic opposition. On the one hand, the style of the internationally well-known animated “manga films” of Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli), such as Spirited away, distances itself from the aesthetics of anime by using techniques of full animation and an attendant stance that Lamarre calls “critical minimization of animation technologies” (Lamarre 2009: 315, emphasis in original) to background the inherent multiplicity of animation and to foreground Miyazaki as a unified auteur of an equally unified Studio Ghibli brand.4 On the other hand, the stance of Anno of Gainax, the studio best known for the anime series Evangelion, and an aesthetic that is much more strongly aligned with celebrating the conventions of anime and otaku fandom, instead engages in “critical optimization of animation technologies” (Lamarre 2009: 315). This approach accentuates the aesthetics of limited animation and flat compositing so that the aesthetic focus is displaced from action or narrative to character and “characters become the site of serialization,” the unifying core that potentiates the elaboration of a product “media mix” (Nozawa 2013).

As Shunsuke Nozawa develops this point, the animated “life” of an animated character thus is not only in their animation on the screen, but their portability across the media mix, their “movement in society”: “Animated characters do not simply ‘move’ on a screen; they must be able to move out of the frame, and enter into other media forms and other narrative contexts.” At the same time, this approach, by moving away from unity of auteur to unity of character, potentiates “a distributive field, in which anyone might now participate, becoming producers in their own right” (Lamarre 2009: 315). That is to say, a new form of fan consumption and site of derivative production arises from the aesthetics of this particular form of animation, moving from “narrative consumption” (Otsuka 2010) to “character consumption” (Azuma 2009). One of the most interesting elements of this particular contrast is that while the charisma of Studio Ghibli’s brand and products is located in the singular human auteur, Miyazaki, whose linkage to all the products is what produces a sense of continuity and serialization (Lamarre 2009: 87), in the case of Gainax-style anime the animating human auteur is replaced by the non-human animated character that drives character consumption. As Azuma (2009) argues, in character consumption, consistency with the character, and not, for example, original authorship, becomes the measure by which both original and derived (fan) works alike are assessed, achieve popularity, and attain coevality with each other.

But what does this have to do with capitalism? The brand-friendly serialization strategy of Studio Ghibli / Miyazaki reminds us of a broader trend within capitalism. One of the misrecognitions central to how capitalism functions these days is that corporations can be equated with individuals (see Kirsch 2012; Gershon 2011; Manning 2010). Many current capitalist interactions revolve around this type of misrecognition. Complex social unities and individuals are taken to be equivalent, and the goal of a transaction or contract is to distribute risk and responsibility equally among the legally constituted actors as though, say, a bank and a homeowner are equivalent entities. Corporate brands not only help misrepresent a complex commodity chain as belonging to a unified producer denoted by a trademark, but such trademarks are often developed into personalistic, even animistic, brands, sometimes even taking the form of animated brand mascots, which further help consolidate this and animate this unified authorial image (Manning 2010). Animation is a particularly effective structuring trope for addressing this particular misrecognition demanded by neoliberal capitalism.5

When Silvio argues that animation is replacing performance as a dominant trope, she is building on the notion of remediation—the idea that beliefs and attitudes about old media and new media are interconnected. Why is this so central to Silvio’s argument? She points out that in the 1950s and 1960s, when scholarly work on performance was establishing itself, US ideologies of performance were framed in contrast to television. That is, the media ideologies about television and performance informed each other, reflected, for example in the way that many shows were performed live before a studio audience, the contrast between the two was crucial for the ways in which performance became a trope for understanding the link between selves and larger social formations. What was important about performance was what television did not privilege, the improvisational and interactive aspects, the focus on the gap between actor and role (Silvio 2010: 424). Especially in the wake of Judith Butler, performance came to be discussed as an embodied, improvised engagement with the gap between actor and role. Role here is loosely defined and becomes the social configuration through which hegemonic and often capitalist expectations of identity are incorporated into a self. These aspects became central to how performance was used as a trope for understanding the link between selves and widespread formations of gender, ethnicity, and class. This understanding of performance was not reserved only for scholars. For example, in The managed heart, Arlie Hochschild (1983) addresses the visible gap between actor and role to point to a new form of labor that workers, especially waitresses and stewardesses, discussed openly as alienating—affective labor, the emotional performances that service jobs demand.

Silvio developed this argument about the emerging trope of animation based on her ethnographic research with fans of a Taiwanese puppet television genre, Pili. These televised serials are understood in Taiwan as a modern reworking of traditional hand puppet theater, adding to this southern Chinese form enough Hong Kong martial arts choreography, digital special effects, and intricate interwoven plot lines to attract a large, young, and predominantly female fan base (Silvio 2007: 285). Fans are attracted to a puppet world and the characters who populate it: “Daoist swordsmen battle morphing vampires (dressed like 18th-century French aristocrats) in the clouds; a ten-year-old living Buddha wards off a lizard-demon by weaving screens of shimmering Tibetan text in the air; and cyborgs from another dimension face off against a Japanese magician who can change from male to female at will” (Silvio 2007: 285). To show and share their enthusiasm for this genre, the mainly female fans will do cosplay (“costume play”), they will dress in elaborate costumes that allow them to pose as Pili puppet characters for cameras and in skits. Cosplay, briefly, is when fans dress up, and sometimes “pose” and even speak, as their favorite character.

Silvio’s earlier work was on a Taiwanese folk-opera, koa-hi, in which women played all the parts. During this fieldwork, asking actresses what they did to get into character was a productive interview question. Not so with Pili cosplayers. Indeed, being in costume did not seem to equate with being in character for these cosplayers either. Silvio kept seeing slouchy teenagers slinking around a park at a Pili event, dressed in very stylized clothes. They would only try to hold themselves like their puppet character when engaged with a camera, they became their character only when photographed. otherwise, they moved like Taiwanese teenagers hanging out, joking, giggling, and checking out the scene. Silvio began to wonder why character seemed to mean such different things to the koa-hi actresses and the Pili cosplayers.

In her article “Informationalized affect: The body in Taiwanese digital-video puppetry and COSplay” (2006) Silvio argues that these cosplayers have started to view bodies as yet another medium in the range of media available to them when representing a character. Thus the body can be activated when it is surrounded by the right combination of media—when there is someone else with a camera or, as Silvio discusses, someone around to voice the characters. In Pili circles, the predominantly female cosplayers only animate the body in skits, lip-synching to prerecorded lines, often all voiced by a young man using vocal cues to distinguish between characters. In a sense, when the cosplayer is dressed as a puppet, the body becomes metaphorically analogous to the puppet’s body, animated as a character by a combination of several people’s efforts. Silvio writes, “In general, cosplayers at conventions want to present, not inhabit, their characters. Cosplayers seem to be rejecting both organic unity in the form of disciplined habitus and the cinematic reconstruction of motion that places the human body within real, continuous time. They do not inhabit the character’s bodies, nor allow those bodies any progression toward death and decay” (Silvio 2006: 212). Silvio argues that Pili cosplayers experience the characters they present as animated characters, not performed characters. Thus the question for them is not how well does someone manage to embody a character through their performance or how seamlessly does an actor seem to vanish into their character. Rather, they are concerned with whether a person’s body resembles the physical characteristics of the puppet character—only cos-players with pale skin should play the elfin Pili characters (Silvio 2006: 211). The skill in animating (as opposed to performing) is not in creating a good characterization but rather in aligning together all the different media involved in representing a character at appropriate times (in Pili cosplay performances, this involves costume, body, voice, movement).

Silvio sees this turn to animating Pili characters as a way for these female cosplayers to, through their play, reshape contemporary experiences of labor in Taiwan. Taiwan, like many other countries, has been experiencing an increase in jobs based on immaterial labor. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that this immaterial labor is often divided into analytic tasks, such as software design, or affective tasks, such as waitressing (Hardt and Negri 2000). And in Taiwan, this division is often gendered, with women often working in jobs that require them to monitor and shape their own moods as well as others’ moods. Many of the fans Silvio interviewed were women in these kinds of jobs—salespeople, teachers, or clerks. Silvio believes that cosplay offers these women a chance to experience the relationship between one’s body and one’s emotions in a way that softens the unpleasantness of this kind of labor. “Given the gap between Taiwanese ‘egeneration’ women’s knowledge and skill in information technology and the ongoing expectation that they will be responsible for the vast majority of embodied, affective labor, there may be something quite restful in treating their bodies as a communicative interface through which emotion is transmitted, rather than experiencing them as the organic source of emotion subject to discipline” (Silvio 2006: 215). Treating one’s body as one among many media in cosplay enables these Taiwanese women to develop a distancing perspective toward the affective labor they are constantly and uncomfortably expected to perform.

Thus animation as a trope also allows scholars to see how certain kinds of subcultural media practices, like cosplay, can be seen within fan media ideologies not as subcultural acts of identity (performance of a subcultural self) but animations of a character (as discussed by Silvio 2010), no different, in principle, from other subcultural media practices like fan fiction art, figure collecting, and so on.6 Indeed, this is not limited to cosplay, as Galbraith (2009; also Nozawa 2012, 2013) shows for Japanese otaku and fujoshi subcultures, the world of everyday life and the mediated world of fantasy are often opposed as 3D and 2D. Yet certain practices, such as maid cafes and cosplay, allow a fan to create a “2.5 dimensional person” or “a liminal existence between fantasy and reality,” because they are animating the 2D fantasy world using a 3D medium, their own body.7 In short, “the ‘cosplayer’ (reiyaa) becomes a character; he or she makes a costume as close to an image as possible and memorizes character poses and spoken lines” (Galbraith 2009). Silvio adds to this analysis by showing how Taiwanese cosplayers, fans of Pili puppet dramas, in effect remediate their own bodies as puppets. If puppet performances in general involve a remediation of the human, breaking down the human into striations of different media, of body, pose, motion, and voice, and then building them up again into a seamless whole of the puppet performance (Manning 2009; Silvio 2006, 2010), then cosplayers cosplaying puppets reverse this process, remodeling an embodied performance to resemble the animation of a puppet, “striating” an organic unity into a series of different media or channels, producing a “mediatized” body. Put more succinctly: “While in Pili videos the puppets have become increasingly humanized (i.e., more organic), in COSplay, the humans have become puppetized” (Silvio 2006: 210).

Animating avatars

In cosplay we see a practice that seems at first glance to be merely another form of embodied performance, no different from stage acting, but when further interrogated instead appears to be conceptualized by its practitioners as a form of animation of a character. Similar tensions between competing tropes of performance and animation are found in the treatment of online embodiments called “avatars” 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. While most existing accounts of avatar embodiment since Sherry Turkle (1995) have tended to treat avatar embodiment monolithically in terms of the forms of performances of alternate identities such embodiments afford, what we wish to show here is that the emergent practices of players of games like Ryzom actually increasingly explicitly classify their nonhuman counterparts (what are usually called “characters” or “toons”) either in terms of animation or performance at different times.

Drawing from a long-term ethnography of Ryzom by one of the authors (Manning 2009, see also Manning 2013), we see that initially the offline player encounters in an online character a nonhuman other that is obdurate and recalcitrant. But eventually, as they come to control it fluidly and skillfully, they come to identify with it, producing a composite hybrid agent known as a “player character” (as opposed to a nonhuman avatar controlled by the game AI, which is a “nonplayer character”). The general evolution of a player-character is thus from an intense awareness of the otherness of the avatar to an identification with it, a move-ment from animation to performance. The avatar is a nonhuman that slowly becomes human.

However, as players developed the ability to control multiple additional avatars, known as “alts” or “alternative characters,” simultaneously through technical innovations like dual-boxing and multiboxing (that is, using two or more characters simultaneously on different game accounts, sometimes on different computers), a new form of avatar biography was born. If player-characters are nonhuman avatars who will ultimately become human, moving from tropes of animation to performance, alternate characters are in the process of becoming nonhuman, they might as easily be described as “animated game pieces” rather than “alternate embodiments” (Linderoth 2005; Jorgenson 2009). Alts are a relatively old phenomenon in online gaming, but their functions have changed radically with the advent of multi-boxing. Originally such characters were used as alternate personae, that is, in performances of alternate pseudonymous identities. But as they came to be used at the same time as a main character (via multiboxing) they came to be seen as “slaves” or “servants” of main characters, and tropes of performance were increasingly replaced with tropes of animation. The emphasis in playing alts came to be controlling them efficiently (that is, animating them). For example, as alts began to lose other playerly human attributes, they came to speak less and less. Thus the evolution of the alt is the reverse of the evolution of the player-character (from nonhuman to human), in that they began as alternate player characters—alternate personas—and end up becoming nonhuman, essentially little more than animated playing pieces.

From the very beginning of research on online environments, virtual worlds from MUDs (multiuser dungeons) to MMOs (Massively Multiple Online worlds), the fact that participants must embody themselves in the online world through a character or avatar has been a central object of interest. Avatar embodiment, as a new media object, produces a “plural existence,” including both a kind of baseline anonymity (since the avatar obscures or negates the offline identity) and a kind of embodied pseudonymity (since the avatar becomes an alternate body on which to pin a durable identity). This plural existence that participants must adopt is a central (and novel) analytic problem and resource of these domains:

Users do not simply have one body and one identity while online, but at times inhabit a space in which they perform several, often in complicated configurations. In fact, the moment you enter a virtual environment you immediately have at least two bodies: a corporeal one and a digital one. Although some users maintain a consistency wvithin a single avatar or character, many do not (by either having multiple bodies within a single space or through their use of multiple worlds). (Taylor 1999: 439)

While the avatar is potentially a figure of identity, a proxy for an offline human, since any participant can only become “present” in the world through an avatar, the avatar is also a figure of alterity, a nonhuman, “a thing in itself” (Taylor 1999: 441). An interesting linguistic reflex of this ambivalent embodiment is the use of deictic terms, terms like “I, you; here, there; now, then” that shift their reference according to the parameters of the context of utterance, and in particular spatial deictics use the bodies of the speaker or addressee as privileged “centers” or “origos” for calibrating their contextual meaning (so “here” can be glossed as “near me [the speaker]”) (Hanks 1990). Since a player in a virtual world has two possible embodiments, there are two possible candidates to serve this role: Thus players will now use the avatar body as a deictic center (“here, where I [the avatar] am”), or they will use their own offline body as the center (“I’ll bring my main character there”), and sometimes they will treat the whole assemblage of human and nonhu-mans as a single entity for reference purposes (Linderoth 2005, Jorgensen 2009). one way scholars know that the opposition between these two bodies is real for people is that the two bodies “compete” as deictic centers for reference: there are two bodies, and two deictic fields, leading to systematic ambiguities in the reference of terms like “I,” “here,” “now,” which are calibrated to embodied presence (Hanks 1990; see also Boellstorff 2012 for the relevance of indexical fields of reference to constituting the digital domain). This deixis test has obvious relevance for whether an avatar will be treated as a self or an other.

But much of the research on avatars tends to focus on the avatar as a resource for identity performances, as a figure of identity. The following early quote from Turkle, speaking of largely textual characters from MUDs, is representative of an ongoing trend in avatar research that focuses almost exclusively on the way that the categories of performance and identity can be bent, folded, and mutilated to cover the resulting possibilities.

As players participate, they become authors not only of text but of themselves, constructing new selves through social interactions. One player says “You are the character and you are not the character, both at the same time.” … On MUDs, one’s body is represented by one’s own textual description, so the obese can be slender, the beautiful plain, the “nerdy” sophisticated…. The anonymity of MUDs—one is known on the MUD only by the name of one’s character or characters—gives people the chance to express multiple and often unexplored aspects of the self, to play with their identity and to try out new ones. MUDs make possible the creation of an identity so fluid and multiple that it strains the limits of the notion. Identity, after all, refers to the sameness between two qualities, in this case between a person and his or her persona. But in MUDs, one can be many. (Turkle 1995: 12)

In contemporary MMOs, most players do indeed treat some of their avatars as figures of identity, and as being, at least within the virtual world, durable personae with identities and with which they identify. Most of our examples will be drawn from the MMO Ryzom, an older science fiction game that takes place on the distant world of Atys, an entirely organic world buzzing with alien life forms among which the player-characters (called “homins,” of which there are four playable races indigenous to Atys) spend their time foraging, hunting, crafting, and wandering. These player characters (characters created and controlled by players) are usually called main characters, or simply “mains,” in contradistinction to another form of player character, the “alt,” short for alternate character. One might ask: if a player is already living a plural existence, a “two body problem,” by having one obligatory digital body in addition to their body in offline “meatspace,” how much more complex do things become with the addition of possibly unlimited numbers of supernumerary avatars, or alts?

While avatars as alternate embodiments provide a fascinating insight into the performance of identity in online environments (and the literature has surely shown this to be the case), these supernumerary avatars (alts) instead explore a range of forms of alterity. Depending on how they are used, alts can be treated as either persons or nonpersons, humans or things. They can either illuminate questions of performance, or questions of animation. In online worlds like Second life, for example, alts mainly serve as “an other persona,” as when players use an “alt” as a “social alt” to explore alternate selves or personas, or an “escape alt” to escape from in-world social networks and contacts (Boellstorff 2008). In online worlds like Ryzom, by contrast, alts mainly serve as “the other of a person”: a range of silent alt servants serving as an entourage for a main character, subaltern supernumeraries who perform actions of various sorts but never perform an identity other than that of a “nonperson” (also Manning 2013).

Though the two kinds of alts are called by the same name (and both kinds are found in both worlds), there are important technical differences: a social alt is an alt one plays instead of one’s main character. A social or escape alt may be on the same game account, so by definition it cannot be played at the same time as the main. Such a usage requires only one account, one game client (or interface) and one computer. There are no special problems of controlling such an avatar, no more so than the problems inherent to controlling any avatar, including one’s main character. By contrast, the supernumerary alt servants or slaves of Ryzom we focus on in this article simultaneously attend to the main character as entourage, unlike social alts, they are copresent with the main character in a virtual world. Thus each alt must be on a separate account, and controlling them will require separate clients running simultaneously on the same or different computers. This kind of alt requires a technical practice called “multiboxing,” so-called because it once required multiple computers (boxes) to run multiple game clients. obviously, the problems of controlling multiple avatars only begin with the complexities of the infrastructure required: on a pure technical level, even playing one additional avatar (“dualboxing”) presents a series of problems, not only of performance but much more particularly of animation. As Silvio notes, one-to-many and many-to-one relations are particularly typical of animation, and as she notes (personal communication), alts seem to be the object that most clearly shows the particularities of this kind of online environment (see also Manning 2013).

There is no question that alts do afford the proliferation of alternate personae, as Tom Boellstorff’s excellent discussion of alt-usage shows. And there is no specific reason to believe that one cannot include all these supernumerary avatars into a diffuse collective identity performance, as T. L. Taylor observed early on, “Plurality does not necessarily indicate a lack of persistent identity. Many people have a core group of selves and bodies that they consistently perform over long periods of time” (Taylor 1999: 448n3). And there is no question that in Ryzom, supernumerary servant alts do indeed “perform nonidentity”: players somewhat assiduously silence their alts, they speak of them in the third person, they do not greet others nor are they greeted, and players give their alts names that suggest their alt status.

When players speak of alts, they explore metaphors of nonpersons and persons as property: “servants,” “slaves,” and as “things.” They are property, rather than persons. Alts do not have an identity except through a main character: when one meets a new alt, one does not ask “who are you?” but “whose alt is this?” For example, when a player-character (Kippy) has been killed and “needs a rez” (someone to resurrect him or her), he or she sees an obvious unattended alt nearby and asks who the owner is:

KIPPY: erm … whos alt is altister?

KIPPY: im kinda needing a rez right next to him :P

ROHAN: nandutu’s alt

When a Ryzom player named Zeep said: “Never leave home without your amps or alt … lol,” she was restating a truism that all Ryzom players have always known, which is that one never leaves for the wilds without packing “amps,” magical amplifiers that allow players to heal or resurrect (“rez”) other characters, but also the more recent truism that nowadays most players also bring an “alt,” who performs various subsidiary functions, including healing and resurrecting the main character: the alt performs the very same functions that an amp does.

Such an alt generally does not have a persona; it is a silent, empty presence. Alts can resemble a main character whose player is away from the keyboard (AFK), becoming “ghostly absent presences” (Boellstorff 2008: 117). In some sense, an alt and an AFK main character are formally identical much of the time, since alts are often deposited in safe spots until they are needed for healing or other tasks, they are simply avatars whose controller is AFK. It is possible to see two AFK avatars sitting in some spot, surrounded by their Mektoub mounts and packers, and know that here we have a main character and an alt, and yet not know which is which if they are unfamiliar. But it is the way an alt moves that gives it away: the repertoire of actions of an alt are often parasitic on the actions of the main character. For example, the alt usually moves by “/follow” commands that allow it to follow the main character, and sometimes it gets “hung up” on an obstacle or tight corner, making it look like an avatar whose player is AFK or lagging. If the main character suddenly changes direction, the alt will suddenly start running backward or sideways, which is cute and amusing. Overall visual effect mirrors its servant status, the alt follows behind the main character like an obedient servant.

In fact, alts, like all player avatars, can be made to follow nearly anything, so their puppet-like automaton quality is sometimes foregrounded by having them follow another automaton endlessly. In Ryzom, the stables in the town of Yrkanis have a unique mascot, a Yubo (a small, cute herbivore that many players find themselves strangely protective of) named Bubbles. Bubbles spends the whole day wandering around in circles in front of the Yrkanis stables. On one occasion, a player I know (Certas) said, “haha my alt has been following Bubbles in yrk[anis] for hours.” One’s alt is often online for a long period of time and not being used, so allowing it to run around chasing a Yubo for hours on end is one way to jokingly “animate” an alt.

Such incidents draw attention to the way that the animated antics of alts will at some points present the problem of the uncanny mixtures of presence and absence, animacy and animation (Boellstorff 2008; Jentsch [1906] 2009), but at other points are a source of amusement and fun: stupid alt tricks. And this comic quality of alt antics in general sheds analytic light on their “animated” quality. For example, alts only speak within a play frame, and for some reason, speaking alts are intrinsically funny. After the game closed down for a reboot that merged all servers into one server (which happened in late 2012), a player whose main character is known as jetlag had his alt Jetal (with an obvious parasitic alt name) argue with him about who was really the alt (all chat is presented exactly as spelled in the original):

JETLAG: hey alt

JETAL: hey wannabe alt

TRYKETTE: this was my alt now he my maine

JETAL: no jetlag is an alt and he keeps getting a life of his own somehow

TRYKETTE: if i spelt it wrong idc Koelhonn: Merci Vldev !

JETLAG: i belive my good sir alt that you owe me a sammich

Sometimes, however, such role-playing performances involving multiple speaking alts become virtuoso puppet performances: amusing as performances in themselves, part of the appreciation of the performance is how the player managed to make that many avatars speak on cue, virtually simultaneously. In short, here too the accent of the performance is on questions of animation. In a rare role-playing performance, the main character, Lilianne, has her alts, Iris and Josette, vocally act out their normally silent servitude and devotion to their main character “master” (“homin” is the generic term in the world for humanoid avatars, but is usually used to mean “fellow players”):

IRIS: Hail homins!

JOSETTE: Hail Homins!


IRIS: Praise Lilianne!

JOSETTE: Praise Lilianne!


LILIANNE: Thats my Fan club

LONEDIGGER: The Lili Fan club !

IRIS: We are Indentured Servants of Lady Lilianne

JOSETTE: Aye, Indentured Servants

When one sees such an alt performance, the questions one asks are not questions of identity (who?) but animation (how?), since duplicating such a virtuoso performance would require extremely advanced skills of avatar animation (see Manning 2013). The problems (both analytic and practical) presented by alts are not those emerging from performing an identity. Alts have no identity other than a parasitic identity, they live in the shadow of the identity of the main. Rather, the problems they present are like those of a vehicle, those of control, of animation, which foreground the nonidentity between the animated object (the avatar) and the animating human.

Breaking up with media

The breakup stories that Ilana Gershon collected often contained an inversion of Paul Manning’s experiences with alts on Ryzom. In these narratives, many offline people would collaborate to animate a single online persona with the tacit assumption (for all intents and purposes) in the ensuing conversations being that the online persona mapped directly onto an offline person. While in Ryzom one person animated many characters, in Gershon’s breakup stories, many people might animate one character. For example, Nadone was hanging out in her dorm room at Indiana University with some of her friends when her boyfriend decided to send her a MySpace message that he wanted to break up. She knew something was going on before he sent her this message, since he had stopped calling her and stopped texting her. As she tells the story with hindsight, it was clear that this was not a story about heartbreak, but about female camaraderie.

NADONE: So we got on there, and I am like fine, I will message him. So I start messaging him. And my friends come in and ask what is going on. So I say I am sending him a message, he broke up with me on MySpace. And they say, “oooh, let us help!” So it was like a conjoined big breakup letter that everyone was helping me with. Everyone on my floor was helping me with this breakup letter. It was like, “oh guess what, Nadone is doing a breakup letter. You guys want to help?” You know. It was the most outrageous letter ever cause everybody had their input.

Her friends at first only shouted out possible suggestions of things she could say. But Nadone does not type quickly enough for her friends. As the Facebook8 messaging turned into a real-time exchange, her friends pulled her out of the chair in front of the keyboard, insisting that they could type faster and knew how to make more appropriately cutting remarks. Giggling, they argued over whether to leave an outrageous (and factually inaccurate) message on his public Facebook wall, instead of keeping this conversation in the more private Facebook messages. While the now ex-boyfriend may have thought he was communicating with his now ex-girlfriend, he was in fact communicating with a group of laughing women battling for control over the keyboard. It was not until days later, when one of Nadone’s friends confessed to him, that he found out “it was a group effort.” Never, however, was there a question about whether the breakup had in fact happened. In this, and other similar stories Gershon heard, the issue was never whether the words typed reflected the feelings or the intentions of the self-typing, but rather how appropriately people used language and media to sever a relationship.

Yet a considerable amount of scholarship on new media posits that whether or not a breakup happened could in fact be a key question in this situation. While in practice, most agree that a breakup has in fact occurred if the conversation took place online, why this might be the case will be approached differently if one begins with performance or with animation. As we have discussed, scholars of new media have been turning to the trope of performance, and in particular Goffman’s work, The presentation of self in everyday life, to ask whether and how authentic selves are being performed in these new arenas. Indeed, a performance approach might indeed encourage ethnographers to focus on whether Facebook, or Internet personas in general, are in fact virtual and how those involved construed their performed identities to establish authenticity (Bullingham and Vasconcelos 2013; Stone 1996; Waggoner 2009; Vaast 2007). But turning to animation changes this question, and we are going to take Facebook as a productive new media inverse of avatars—online personas that are not virtual but rather are examples of a new media persona in which online and offline practices are seamlessly intertwined. Put another way, from an animation perspective, there is no intellectual dilemma that must be explained away to recognize that a suggestion to breakup on Facebook is generally not only intended to end a Facebook relationship, it is also a request to breakup offline.

This is but one of many stories Gershon collected in Bloomington, Indiana in 2007 and 2008 as she interviewed anyone willing to talk about how new media was involved in their experiences of breakups. The breakup stories she heard were narratives about a series of conversations. Even when breakups involve one particular conversation designated as The Breakup Conversation, in actuality, many conversations are involved. Not all stories involved a typed message indicating it was over, but all the narrated breakups involved some mediated exchange of information as the relationship dissolved. Almost all of the people she interviewed assumed that a single person not only composed the words they read but also that these words revealed valid information about that single author’s feelings and motivations. That is, retellings of the actual breakup conversation tend to presume single authors. The retelling of the breakup practices, however, might involve accounts of multiple authorship. This is a practice that thinking in terms of animation can address more effectively than analysis using performance as a trope.

Authorship becomes a different category when one moves between tropes of performance and tropes of animation, even in contexts where media is largely a channel through which one accomplishes the mundane work of being social. While Gershon’s interviewees often interpreted authorship through a performance lens, this was at odds with their practice, which often introduced the production of unity and individuality that could be better explained in terms of animation. For the most part, people perceived these isolating breakup conversations as conversations that take place between two individuals who were expressing their often ambivalent and often conflicted desires about being in a romantic relationship. That is, people assumed single authors for utterances and presumed that these utterances, produced by a single person, could give insights into what the person believes—people’s statements are insights into their thoughts. This is, as anthropologists know too well, not a universal assumption but rather a very culturally specific set of assumptions.

The structure of the media often reinforced this view that utterances have single authors. Instant messaging, texting, email, Facebook messages—all these interfaces announce who the author of a message is, and these media strongly imply a single author. It is possible to undermine this, to send a Facebook message from a profile labeled Xerox Corporation or to send an email message from an email address: thehorde@crowd.com. Some of these technologies, such as Facebook, have guidelines that try to dissuade people from animating a profile as a group. And in general, people tend to assume that messages are sent back and forth between two individuals, and the technologies encourage this belief. In the case of breakups, we would go a step further and suggest that in order to participate in a US breakup conversation, one must presume that it is a conversation between two people, and only two people, as the taken-for-granted frame of the event.

While these communicative technologies suggest, through their representation of the sender, that there is a single author, the technologies also make it more difficult for people to ascertain whether or not this is the case (see also Gershon 2011). In Europe and America, the typewriter introduced this potential ambiguity, as Frederick Kittler (1999) has pointed out. In large measure, the typewriter was only able to create this uncertainty because of people’s media ideologies about handwriting. Kittler argues that each person’s handwriting was understood to be distinctive enough that a person’s scrawl functioned as proof that she had physically picked up a pen and written that particular document. Yes, forgery was always possible, but forgery was only possible because for so many, handwriting was a guarantee of single authorship. The typewriter forced people to rethink their media ideologies about authorship, since anyone could type a letter but claim someone else had written the letter. Indeed, new jobs emerged because of the ways employers began to manage their correspondence as a result. While handwritten letters had allowed for some forms of multiple authorship, these opportunities greatly increased with the typed word. And these opportunities brought accompanying anxieties that were shaped by people’s shared media ideologies. In the period that Kittler discusses, the years after the invention of the typewriter, the anxieties about this technological possibility all revolved around duplicity. The performance of a particular self might not accurately reflect the self who is in fact performing. And while this anxiety still haunts people today,9 this is not the anxiety that accompanies concerned warnings about mediated breakups. Instead, people fear ever-increasing isolation and social awkwardness.

Yet when people use new media to disentangle from each other, an assumption of single authorship is not always warranted. In part, this is because people will share passwords with their friends, but this is not the primary reason. During breakups, many interviewees made their conversational decisions after consulting with friends. People will discuss their choices—if someone sends them a text message that is emotionally fraught, should they respond by text or should they call? When people are in the middle of a text message fight, they will often ask any friend who happens to be with them, “what should I say now?”

People Gershon interviewed often got advice about whether to break up with someone, and when to do so, from their friends and family (see also Jones, Schieffelin, and Smith 2011). In one breakup story Gershon collected, Kelsey had been planning to break up with her boyfriend for weeks but couldn’t bring herself to do it.

KELSEY: I broke up with my boyfriend through text messaging. Well, we met through work, and he just texted me one day to see if I would do something with him. Usually I would get phone calls, I wasn’t too into texting. It takes me a really long time, I have a new phone and everything. And after that we started texting a lot more at work and stuff, so that’s how we really started the relationship kind of, by texting. And then, I really wanted to end it before I came to college because he was a year younger, so he was staying in high school. And, um, I was freaking out about how to do it and my friends were like “you have to do it, you have to get it done.” And I was, like, way too scared to do it, and I didn’t want to do it over the phone, or anything. And we always, like, texted everything. So I just sort of, well, my friends told me what to say and I just texted him.

ILANA: Were your friends there while you were texting?

KELSEY: Yeah. It was just random. We were just walking around and they said “you should really do it right now.” And I was like: “Right now? No way, I can’t do it.” And I was going to go out of town for a week, and there were all these things coming up, and so they said “no, you really have to do it now.” But I really can’t just do it. Because I had been talking about it for a long time, and I just wouldn’t do it. So they encouraged me. And I was like: “okay.”

ILANA: Wait, let me get this straight, they were encouraging you to do this by text?


ILANA: Did you talk to them about the fact that maybe it should be a phone call? Did you talk to them about whether text was the right medium to do this?

KELSEY: Yeah. I thought maybe I should just talk to him in person. They were like: “Its going to be a lot harder in person.” And I didn’t know when I was going to see him, because I was going out of town. So they are like: “you are just going to keep putting it off, and then it’s going to be August, and you are going to be stuck with a long-distance relationship. It’s just going to get worse.” So I sort of ended up doing that, which probably isn’t the best way to do it, but hey, it happened to me.

Kelsey begins a story with an account of affordances. Texting is not always an easy medium for everyone to use. Some people have narrower fingers, more agility, and so text more quickly. In addition, Kelsey is adapting to a new phone, and each new technology requires a period of adjustment. She is brought into texting more frequently because of her boyfriend, who texts all the time but she never truly becomes comfortable using this medium. This, of course, is yet more evidence in support of Sonia Livingstone’s claim that not all youth take to technology like fish to water, that there is a wide and uneven array of technical skills distributed across those presumed to be digital natives (see Livingstone 2009).

Kelsey knows a breakup is imminent. In another moment in the interview, she talks about how her use of Facebook anticipates the breakup. She refuses to put her status up on Facebook, because she knows that it will only be a matter of weeks or months before she has to deal with her friends’ Facebook posts, texts, or phone calls in response to the news that a breakup has finally happened. She wonders if this was in fact the right strategy, since it ensures that people are constantly asking her if the breakup has taken place yet. Here, people’s texting, calling, Facebook strategies are all intertwined in her calculations about how to circulate personal information.

Other people also played a large role in Kelsey’s breakup, especially her texted breakup conversation. The friends told her exactly what to text. Kelsey knew she was going to end the relationship but she was having a terrible time deciding when and how. So her friends decided for her. Part of the story relies on how mobile cell phones are—she would not have been able to walk around with her friends and a typewriter. The phone’s mobility changed the participant structure of the breakup conversation. This is one of many stories Gershon collected in which friends were engaged in the labor of ending a relationship. Not only did they hear the stories about what was being said and done but they also gave their opinions and sometimes provided the actual words for what should be said next.

In short, when people told stories about the actual break-up conversation, they tend to presume each utterance had a single author. But when they explained how the breakup conversations actually took place, that is, telling stories about the practices, there were often multiple authors. The actual practices of writing or interpreting the messages sent in a breakup conversation may be very social indeed. Perhaps some everyday anxieties about mediated breakups that frame these breakups as the mark of an increasingly awkward and maladept generation are misplaced. The fears of a new generation’s increasing social inadequacies require a strong belief that a single author is responsible for an utterance and overlooks the ways in which the structures of these technologies can enable breakups to be very social events. That is, these anxieties involve reading an act based on animation through a performance lens.


We suggest, along with Silvio, that scholars no longer need to evaluate every interaction in terms of the rubric of performance, with its attendant concerns about how roles and actors’ true selves coincide, or the tension between scriptedness and improvisation. An analytical focus on animation brings with it a whole new set of concerns. We have touched on only a few. What are the experiences of embodiment when bodies become yet another medium? What are the implications for being human (as opposed to nonhuman) when what distinguishes the human is how one is being controlled? How does one best create a believable unity/character when combining so many different forms of labor? Or, as a corollary, how can one best project a coherent and intertextual self across a range of media (a recognizable brand or icon for some) (see Gershon in press)?

As animation enters into the media ecology, this does not mean that performance falls away entirely. Nowadays performance is in part defined by what animation is and is not, just as live performance and television played this uneasy definitional tango sixty years ago. Our ethnographic examples in this article lead to three insights about animation as a trope and its interconnection to performance. We began by discussing Teri Silvio’s work on cosplay. For those immersed in thinking of performance as the only dominant trope for understanding both identity and reflexive social interaction, cosplay at first glance is simply a moment of dressing up no different than other forms of reenactment. Yet this overlooks how people understand their relationship to the character they inhabit momentarily, as well as their practices. Cosplayers are not performing as characters, they are animating a character, using their body as one striated medium among many. The body in these moments becomes a medium, and, depending on the cosplay, only one among many needed to produce the desired effect. What was once an unmarked and naturalized contrast to mediated communication has become reimagined as one among many mediated forms. Animation has changed people’s understandings of embodiment.

Manning’s example shows how animation as a trope also transforms how people experience the self-other dichotomy, especially when one is dealing with an avatar in a virtual world. Avatars by their nature raise the question of what it means to be a self, since an avatar by its nature is both prosthesis and other. Players in virtual worlds in practice tend to blackbox the aspects of their avatars that are other, and focus instead on how avatars are a prosthetic projected self. Yet alts are the exception, the moment when players stop blackboxing the ways in which an avatar is fundamentally other and engage with the nonhumanness of an avatar. In these moments, ideas of performance continue to haunt people’s analysis of situations, especially as some avatars (player-characters) are performed and others, the alts, are animated. This is most striking in the case of speech: player-characters are normatively talkative, alts are normatively silent, so when alts finally speak it is understood as a playful performance of ventriloquism. People move rapidly between these two tropes for understanding practice, and thus are also moving rapidly between concepts of the kinds of otherness that an avatar embodies. In virtual worlds, “are you human?” is always a relevant question to ask of whatever being one encounters. Alts transform the division between human and nonhuman into the vexing question: “how are you being controlled?”10

Finally, Gershon’s ethnographic example reveals that while performance and animation may be mutually constitutive tropes that people have as resources when they engage with new media, they are not equally valued in people’s explicit social analysis. This is not a comment on scholars, by any means, but a discussion of how people currently appear to be analyzing the social interactions they encounter in their everyday lives. Ideas of performance in the contemporary moment (in 2013) seem to trump ideas of animation in people’s explicit social analysis. That is, while both performance and animation may be deployed in practice, they are not equally compelling ways of analyzing for people on the ground. Given an opportunity, an analysis of other people’s intentions and behavior based on performance will still be privileged over an analysis based on animation. This raises questions for future research. Is this a Foucaultian epistemic shift in which analysis presuming performance is gradually becoming less and less compelling? Under what cultural and historical circumstances will assumptions of selves and sociality based on animation provide a more persuasive form of social analysis? As animation becomes a more and more common basis for interpreting social interaction, what new configurations of sociality will emerge?

Postscript: Animation, animism, and naturalism

Our discussion of animation might seem to invite comparison with the recent revival of interest in anthropology in ontologies such as naturalism and animism (for example Descola 1996).11 After all, the category of animation we discuss here is a range of practices used to create an apparent illusion of life, and as a set of practices, it crosscuts these ontologies. Indeed, animation theorist Alan Cholo-denko suggests that theoretical discussions of practices of animation are always torn between theorizing animation as “endowing with life” and “endowing with motion” (Cholodenko 1991: 15). Therefore practices of animation cannot be thought through without either reproducing, problematizing, or at least raising questions about ontological oppositions defined in “the debate since classical times onwards between the animists, who believed the world was alive with spirit or material substance, that all that moved was alive, and the mechanists, who believed that motion was obedient to physical laws and necessitated no presumption of organic or spiritual vivifying agency” (Cholodenko 1991: 16). Cholodenko shows that practices of animation tend to occupy an uncanny undecidable theoretical space of ontological instability between animism (in which all motion points to life) and mechanistic naturalism (in which motion does not point to life). Thus animation as a practice can be found within both naturalist and animist ontologies, but the problems that practices of animation present within each ontology is correspondingly distinct. Since virtually all the data and discussion we have adduced derives from the animation practices of those who in other respects are naturalists, we will discuss the relation of animation to naturalism here in more detail.

Within a naturalist ontology, animation becomes problematic, difficult to accommodate to the overarching ontology, as an “uncanny” category that seems to point to animistic ontological premises that have been superseded by naturalism. Ernst Jentsch, an early theorist of the uncanny (whose ideas were later taken in different directions in Freud’s influential essay [Freud (1919) 1953]), specifically defines the “uncanny” as the space of doubt or undecidability as to the status of an animate object between these ontologies: “namely, doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate” (Jentsch [1906] 2009).12 This uncanny space of ontological undecidability, Cholodenko suggests, defines “animatic” practices: “the animatic apparatus—apparatus which suspends distinctive oppositions, including that of the animate versus inanimate—apparatus of the ‘uncanny’” (Cholodenko 1991: 29).

Since naturalist ontologies present themselves as a historical and developmental stage that supersedes animism, it comes as no surprise that practices of animation (doll-play, animated cartoons, and so forth) have tended to be assigned to the animistic stage of childhood (Hall and Ellis 1897). Theorists of the uncanny like Jentsch and Freud, whatever their other disagreements, also explicitly locate the uncanny with respect to a historical and developmental progression from primitive childhood animism to civilized adult naturalism.

To paraphrase Phillipe Descola, who is paraphrasing Latour’s famous formulation (1993), the dualist opposition between humans and nonhumans that characterizes naturalism as an ontology in fact favors the phenomenological proliferation of hybrid practices of animation within naturalism. Building on Descola’s insights, while naturalism and animism each engage with animation as a set of practices that produces different ontological quandaries, this is largely because animation itself is a hybrid of human and nonhuman action and actants. As we discussed earlier in the article, we see this most clearly with Goffman’s implied challenge to linguistic anthropology, a branch of anthropology that has hitherto been most decidedly committed to a humanistic Cartesian linkage of language to human agency in the “natural figure” of the human speaker. Goffman’s decomposition of the speaker has long been recognized as showing the ways that an individual speech act can be distributed across a series of human speech actors, but what has been less obvious is the way that he shows that it can be distributed across an assemblage of heterogeneous actors, both “speech actors” and “speech actants” (to borrow an elegant formulation from Nozawa’s [2013] discussion of “characters”). Goffman’s move to a model of animation can be seen, as we have noted above, as implying a flat ontology of speaker that includes both humans and nonhumans, the ontological implications of which linguistic anthropology has only recently come to grapple with; an excellent example of such proliferating hybrids would be Ian Hutchby’s (2001) discussion of the way the category of conversation moves from face-to-face, to technologically mediated (telephone), to becoming a mediation between humans and technology (conversational interfaces in human computer interaction). Nozawa, in his discussion of frequently animated figures known as “characters” in the Japanese media mix, underlines the critical ontological challenge presented by animation, offering a symmetric “character-centrism” that decenters received anthropocentrism by displacing the “natural figure” of the human speaker central to performance frameworks with the “nonnatural figure” of the (human or nonhuman) character within a framework of animation:

Against the background of anthropocentrism, we might propose character-centric realism, a view which does not reject the former but offers itself up as an alternative in order to disorient our general human-centered thinking and symmetrize the field of investigation for both humans and non-humans. If anthropology … can illuminate or at least recognize special and important roles played by fairies, ghosts, gods, angels, the dead, and other fantastic and liminal actants (including liminal objects like dolls and feces as well as liminal humans such as novices in a rite of passage and spirit mediums in a séance), then it might as well do the same with characters. My sense is that anthropology has, at least sometimes if not always, been a secret fan of the general notion of “symmetry” of explanation that Latour (e.g., 1993) and others speak of— perhaps secretly to itself. (Nozawa 2013, emphasis in the original)

As Nozawa argues, then, an anthropology comfortable with talking about the fantastic beings “animating” nature in animist ontologies (fairies) should be equally comfortable with fantastic media figures like characters that “animate” the cityscape in Japan. Again to paraphrase Descola (1996: 89), animism and naturalism, then, in terms of their practices, are never very far apart because their practices both include animation: Naturalism constantly produces hybrids of human and nonhuman (animation) “that it cannot conceptualise as such,” while animism “conceptualises a continuity between humans and nonhumans which it can produce only metaphorically, in the symbolic metaphormorphoses generated by rituals” (Descola 1996: 89), and, we add, through practices of animation.


We want to thank the anonymous reviewers at Hau, as well as Giovanni da Col and Michelle Beckett for their thoughtful editing suggestions.


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Animer l’interaction

Résumé : Cet article répond au défi de Teri Silvio, lancé en 2010, de mettre l’animation au cœur de notre compréhension de la relation entre nous-mêmes et les médias. Nous discutons la façon dont l’animation peut éclairer les aspects concernant lesquels l’approche dominante de la performance reste silencieuse : que signifie être humain quand ce qui distingue l’humain du non-humain est la façon dont on est contrôlé ? Nous avançons que se concentrer sur l’animation peut faire la lumière sur les interactions sociales à la fois dans les mondes virtuels et les pratiques des médias où les échanges en ligne et hors ligne sont inextricablement liés.

Paul MANNING is an Associate Professor of anthropology at Trent University and the author of Strangers in a strange land: Occidentalist publics and orientalist geographies in nineteenth-century Georgian imaginaries and Semiotics of drink and drinking.

Paul manning
Department of Anthropology
Trent University
Peterborough, Ontario
Canada K9H 7B8


Iiana GERSHON is an Associate Professor in the department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University and a 2013–2014 fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. She is the author of The breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over new media and No family is an island: Cultural expertise among Samoans in diaspora.

Iiana Gershon
Deptartment of Communication and Culture
Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana 47405, USA


1. Goffman argues that these roles are not necessarily the classifications that participants use. People on the ground will often use the term “speaker” to signify a wide range of relationships to an utterance. Thus these are not social roles but analytical ones (Goffman 1981: 144).

2. We note parenthetically that much earlier similar analytic decompositions of person, author, and agent are also foundational to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, chapter XVI, “Of persons, authors, and things personated.”

3. Even as Goffman seeks to make a radical expansion of the performance paradigm (which becomes an animation paradigm), and place the human body and nonhuman performing objects into the same category, he reinstates the folk ideological conflation between embodied performance and identity performance in the category of “natural figures” (1974: 524): “live, physical, flesh and blood bodies—animal or human—each with an ongoing personal identity.” Goffman seems reluctant to give the materiality of the figure any analytic role here: the natural staged figure has to be an actor using their own body and playing a role that is imaginable as a real natural figure, and unnatural staged figures are those that fail to either of these. Natural figures and natural staged figures (that is, actors animating their own bodies producing figures that can be imagined to be real), then, point to what we normally think of as embodied performance, and it is in his discussions of unnatural staged figures, which can include a “wide array of configurations, both human and nonhuman, including human animating forms, animals, paper-mache mock-ups, wooden frames, and even, in the case of ghosts, empty spaces” (1974: 526), that Goffman gives readers his most interesting reflections on an emergent but still largely latent paradigm of “animation.”

4. Lamarre actually notes that Ghibli in actual practice uses a mixture of full and limited animation techniques, but accentuates the former “artistic” techniques (typical of Disney animation) and backgrounds the use of cheaper techniques of limited animation (typical of anime aesthetics) in a hybrid technique he calls “Limited Full Animation” or punningly “Full Animation, Ltd.” to emphasize the role it plays in forming a distinctive Ghibli brand style (on the distinction between the two kinds of animation, which are too complicated to go into here, see Lamarre 2009).

5. It is no accident that animated characters so often stand in for corporations, entities that are increasingly becoming legally equivalent to persons.

6. As Isaac Gagne (2008: 142) demonstrates, at first glance extremely similar acts of dressing up, such as wearing rococo-period “Gothic-Lolita” costumes, can be seen as a performance of subcultural identity and authentic self (“this is the real me”) or as a cosplay [kosupure] animation of a Gothic-Lolita character. As Gagne shows, members of Japan’s Gothic-Lolita subculture are thus at pains to differentiate their otherwise similar practices from those of cosplayers in precisely these terms: kosupure is always bound up in mimicry, and is not a matter of expressing one’s “true” self, but rather it is masquerading as someone else. However, as Gagne also shows, this ideological polarization is blurred by the hybridity of actual practices: most members of this subculture have a previous biographical history of cosplay, and it is arguable that Gothic-Lolita cosplay, very similarly to Pili cosplay, draws inspiration from bisque dolls (which unlike anime or Pili characters lack a background story), and Gagne argues that Gothic-Lolita performance is in fact an attempt to animate a doll (rather than re-animate a [Pili or Anime] character) using their own bodies, to become a living doll: “Gothic/Lolita archetypes that are drawn from dolls or other inanimate sources may lack any preexisting story-based context. In this way, an inanimate figure such as a doll from the popular Blythe company becomes the model for a Gothic/Lolita, who then strives to become an animate representation of that figure—a process that contrasts explicitly with kosupure fans who are always involved in the reanimation of already animate figures” (Gagne 2008: 142).

7. Cosplay differs from fashion because the primary goal is not the pursuit of style, beauty, or personal expression, but rather the enactment of two-dimensional characters.

8. In the interview transcript, MySpace quickly morphed into Facebook.

9. For example, think about the Myspace bullying incident in which a neighborhood mother took on the guise of a middle-school boy to taunt a local girl. Or the emergence of the term “catfishing” to refer to the romance that emerges when someone older or of the wrong gender poses as an appealing young woman to dupe trusting young men.

10. In her article, Silvio suggests that just as performance has been widely understood in terms of Lacanian stages, animation can be understood in terms of Winnicott’s concept of transitional objects. This leads us to suggest that alts pose the unsettling question: what happens when what could become a person is instead a transitional object?

11. We use Descola’s earlier (1996) model because for our purposes, the opposition between animism and naturalism is the most germane to our discussion (since it figures prominently in one form or another in the various theorists of animation we cite, and is part of the “indigenous” ontological model by which Western modernity distinguishes itself qua “modern”). For those curious about how similar issues might be relevant for Japanese classification and Japanese animation, see Jensen and Blok’s recent discussion (2013) and references.

12. We draw on Jentsch’s original definition (which Freud’s essay bears an “uncanny” resemblance to) because it focuses specifically on ontological doubts about animation, making it comparable to other contemporary uses of the term “uncanny” in animation theory (specifically the extremely influential concept of the “uncanny valley”) whereas Freud’s development notoriously takes the “uncanny” in several different directions, which would require a lengthy discussion, not all of which would be useful.