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From Animism to Animation

Towards a Re-Enchantment of the World

Volker Grassmuck
 Byline (Dentsu Sôken)


Man is essentially an author. He writes signs into the world around him, writes texts, and programs. 'Text' is ethymologically related to 'textile', it is a fabric binding together the unconnected phenomena man perceives around him. The connections are not simply there for us to perceive. "The world is not an accomplice to our cognition," says Foucault. "There is no pre-discursive providence that makes the world well-disposed towards us."

Anthropologists write scientific signs into the history of mankind, signs about animistic people who related toward their environment by binding together phenomena into a system of interaction and transmutation. The object world to them was not of a different ontological category from themselves. Therefore the differences could be bridged by techniques of mimesis, ecstatic ritual, and sacrifice. Shamans could cross over to the other side. The souls of things responded directly. Men had not yet invented the absolut dichotomy of Subject and Object. People were not self-identical throughout their life, but went through initiations, transitions of death and rebirth, and shamanistic transmutations that made them someone else.

Today - on the other side of modernity - travelling in a 'virtual world', we can never be sure whether a chair that we encounter might not be inhabitat by another human being. Again, objects, signs, space itself respond to us. What was difference in sameness in the animistic narrative, in the modern turned into unification - first in matter then in information - and eventually into indifference. In the new narrative man and things are again of the same primordial quality: informational entities. Although the term 'soul' (anima) has come out of fashion, in analogy to the earlier narrative we might be allowed to speak of an 'animation' of the world. Man and objects again can have direct intercourse, unmediated by shamans, linked directly via technical interfaces. And possibilities for strange encounters and seduction reoccur.


In between, there was the project of modernity. Anthropologists tell us, that animism was not a very perfected system of world creation. It could not completely get rid of the horror of the incomprehensible will of the Other. That is why man invented a new texture, more fine-meshed, catching in it the smallest, indivisible particles and the largest, distant stars. Everything was connected again, but now all the connections could be rationally explained and understood if only man applied the universally valid methods of science long and hard enough. In the center, like the spider in the web, holding all the strings, man seated a form of himself that he called 'the Subject'.

Mytho-logos and techno-logos both create a world. But in the latter the will- to-knowledge is always already a will-to-power. The prove of understanding a segment of the world is the ability to manipulate, utilize, and simulate it. In 'instrumental reason' (Horkheimer) truth was epistmologically linked to control. At the beginning of our century 'information' was invented as the central paradigm of control, information in technical media. Disciplins as 'social engineering' and 'knowledge engineering' show how such diverse spheres are understood by the model of information processing machines. Today the world has diappeared behind a thick layer of signs and machinery, signifiers of wich it is questionable whether underneath them any signifieds still exist.

With the increasing cumulative knowledge the systems to control the natural, social, and technical world had to become increasingly larger. In networks and systems that have grown beyond a certain size, hyper-complexity occurs and control slips. The largest technical systems, e.g. the Space Shuttle or military early warning systems, are apparently operating at the limit of controlability. The same is true for nuclear power plants. (The Japanese are about the last on this planet to believe they can be operated savely.)

 The project of modernity has turned into a self-refutation, a disproof of the power over the objects. There is an inherent tendency in the project of modernity that strives beyond controlabilty towards hyper-complex systems. The object world eludes control. Any mystification is out of place if we talk about automatized systems that can cause nuclear devastation. Man has to recognize the boundaries of his ability to control.


Everywhere we can observe a rising trend towards shin shûkyô; and occultism. These trends are only a backgound factor for what I want to refer to here as 'animation'. Words ending with '-ism' refer to a system of belief, whereas '- ation' refers to a process shaped and created by man, like in creation. 'Animation' is the bestowment of a soul onto technical objects, a secondary animism. For a specialist in psychological aspects of religion the underlying mechanism might be the same - a projection. But now the objects onto which supernatural qualities are projected are not natural any more, they are technical, man-made. They are media.

 'Medium' refers to technical media, but also to a person who establishes contact to a world beyond. There seems to be an inherent relation between the two. The spiritists in the 19th century utilized technical media immediately after their invention. In séances people tried to establish telegraphic and telephonic contact with the beyond. In the noise of the channel they tried to read messages from the souls of the dead.

 It can be seen as a secular form of the same idea when in computer art from the very beginning in the 1950s random generators were used to introduce an uncontroled element in the creation of artworks. Chance, as in throwing coins or ekisen, as in the noise of an early telephone line, creates patterns open for interpretation as expression of fate, the will of a higher being, or - in computer art - of a spontaneity and creativity that is not controlled by the artist himself.

How a man-made system turns into an autonomous, living, animate being could first be observed with ELIZA. ELIZA is an early AI program that simulates a psychotherapeut. Written in the early 1960's by Joseph Weizenbaum it transforms written input and echoes it back to the user in question form. It gave many people the impression of a real person who can emphatically 'understand' what they are telling him. Weizenbaum recounts an incident where his secretary asked him to leave the room when she was having a therapeutic talk with ELIZA.

This sense of an alien presence, of an interlocuter rather than a lifeless, algorithmic machine is intentionally produced by media artists, e.g. Myron Krueger (Video Place), Jeffrey Shaw or Toshio Iwai. Their environments are zones in which the visitor can make things happen by the move of a finger, by dancing or clapping hands. But animation spreads far beyond the sacred sphere of art. Is it too far fetched to assume that someone living in an 'intelligent home' has the feeling he can create a pleasing environment simply by saying the magic word? With NASA's Virtual Reality system becoming the general media-interface of the future it will be easy to step over into worlds quite similar to the ones shamans could access with the help of trance dance and drugs.

Rationalists will say that this amounts to a mystification. Certainly, when you would look inside the casing of the world machines or print out the code you would find a completely determined technical system. But for the perception there remains something that is not identical with the technical description of its functional parts. From an engineering point of view these are new interfaces. From an epistemological point they are attempts to animate our environment, make it respond 'as if' it understood our wishes.

The fetishism of the commodified society has turned into a new animism. The absolute boundary between Subject and Object has become permeable. Cyborgs (human qualities inside machines) and protheses (machines inside the human body) are cross-boundary entities. Lyotard speaks about the project to make the whole world a prothesis of the human intelligence, about reality as a prothesis. But this is still thought from the standpoint of the Subject. The interface is a point of connection where signals flow in both directions. Therefore Baudrillard's idea of the objects developing their own fatal strategies seems to make more sense.

Hypercomplexity shows that the project to rationally analyze and reproduce the world has inherent boundaries. 'Knowledge is power,' Francis Bacon wrote at the beginning of modernity, at its end we have learned that omniscience is powerlessness. The virtually complete knowledge might be stored in the global databases, but our ability to responsibly control it recedes. Unintelligibility grows in the very heart of completely determined systems.

Today we observe the writing of a new text, a programm, a script that leaves open spaces for chance or fate, that gives up some of the claim to control everything. It is not by chance that the concept of play is central to the writing of many contemporary authors. And without doubt there will be people holding communion with Voodoo deities in the matrix (William Gibson).

 Both possibilities are open: hyper-complexity and the de-animation of the planet or playful object strategies and the re-enchantment of the world.