3 December 2016

Commodity and simulacrum in "Transformation": Soviet animation through the lens of Late Capitalism

To Whom It May Concern

The tendency to see Soviet animation as embedded in a propagandist enterprise dominates most, if not all, literature on the culture of the moving image in the USSR. There have, in recent years, been some attempts to redress this emphasis; David Macfayden, in his study on the cartoons of Soyuzmultfilm, comments that 'if they were supposed to be political, they were neither written nor received on those terms (1).

What prevents us, then, from accessing the later productions of Soyuzmultfilm via a postmodern logic, the logic of late capitalism, as Fredric Jameson famously called it? (2) Soyuzmultfilm's later output (from the 1970s onwards) seems particularly to lend itself to this kind of reading, coinciding as it does with the development of theories of postmodernism and new critical approaches to Marxist philosophy.

Transformation, which dates from 1982 and was directed by Nikolai Serebryakov (by then an experienced artist and director), engages, not in an uncritical way, with consumer culture, capitalism, materialism and the role of the human subject within the matrix formed by those terms. It centers around the character of an elderly man, Antonio, who faces an identity crisis in a new postindustrial and postmodern age. The narrator informs us that 'the new times were too fast for him; the old had departed, never to return again.' A subject at odds with the proliferation of consumer culture, Antonio feels isolated and eventually undergoes a transformation, choosing to live on his own terms in a world of his own memories.

The opening sequence realises an endless cycle of consumption and fragmentation. The world is seen only through mirrors, in which objects are fleeting and continuously broken up.  Mirroring is a device which produces simulacra, in Jean Baudrillard's sense of the word. Baudrillard's seminal 1981 essay Simulacra and Simulation posits the simulacrum as a copy without an original, a signifier without a referent.(3) According to Baudrillard, there are three stages of the development of the simulacrum; in the second stage, the gap between representation and reality becomes confused owing to the mass-reproducibility of objects and the rise of commodity culture.  In the 'third', postmodern, stage of the development of the simulacrum, the representation precedes the actual object.

Transformation realises this third stage of the simulacrum; objects are seen and known only through their reflections in mirrors, only through their images. The automobiles thrown into the scrap yard are commodities, but we perceive only images of these commodities; hypermaterialism and hyperconsumerism result in an annihilitation of materiality, so that the automobile may not even exist outside the image we have of it.

Adding to this concept of the simulacra is the confusion elicited by the fact that we are not only looking at images of objects but also at images of images; the appearance of Warhol's prints, universally recogniseable as artistic products, are also embedded in this frenetic opening sequence. It is impossible to know where images or representations end and where reality begins.
The inclusion of the human body in this sequence, or rather its parts, introduces the role of the human subject, who is integrated into commodity culture and who knows no wholeness or identity in this environment. This frenetic urban environment can be known merely through metonymy, where isolated fragments and parts (of bodies as well as vehicles) fail to refer to a coherent whole. Overall the lack of distinction in the opening credits between man and machine, between human and commodity, acts as a mise-en-scene of the fragmentation of identity that will later become a crucial theme for Antonio and the other characters.

This exposition is then followed by the narrative proper. Antonio, seated in a high-backed chair against a backdrop of steam locomotive diagrams, examines an old framed photograph. Although not participating in the frenzy around him, he becomes endlessly caught up in it, until his photograph is destroyed and he is forced to leave. He soon discovers a park inhabited by two cats, formerly human subjects - one a teacher and the other a professor of medicine. All three embark on a journey into their memories, which are simultaneously a source of torment and a source of comfort.

That human subjects transform into animals is dictated by the necessity of returning to a natural world free of suffocating material culture. Yet it is not merely a positive transformation that takes place here. The survival of the animals is only possible through their invisibility and their retreat into an atemporal world; in the culture of high visibility which prevails in the late capitalist mode, invisibility is the other pole of the dialectical opposition. Both poles ultimately result in a destruction of sorts,  since the visibility and proliferation of images results in their meaninglessness, while invisibility of the subject results in his/her annihilation (how are we to know if someone exists if we can't see them?).

Memory and the past prove to be just as susceptible to the intrusions of consumerism as the present. They are also structured by the commodity and the simulacrum - the characters of the past (the young Antonio, Antonio's partner, the teacher, and the doctor) are represented by photographs, as opposed to dolls like that of the Old Antonio. This is not merely an aesthetic decision used to distinguish one temporality from another; it is intrinsic to the understanding that Antonio's current lived experience in the late capitalist mode impacts his vision of the past. Loss and trauma is problematised for Antonio by the fact that his vision of his wife is known only through a simulacrum - the photograph - that makes him question whether she ever even existed as in "original" form. Thus the photograph, embedded in the discourse of late capitalism, operates not merely as a reminder of Antonio's wife; it also operates as a reminder that the past is mediated by a present which threatens to engulf it.

In both episodes of the past, in which the Teacher and the Doctor respectively become engrossed in their private memories, the role of commodity culture intrudes. The teacher's class photograph, which introduces her memory, is revealed to be part of a large ornate vase (onto which the faces of her students have been printed). This marriage of simulacrum and commodity emphasises the way in which consumer culture reduces memory and the past to compact objects or artefacts. This is not the first time that a commodity becomes a container for human subjectivity in the animation; earlier, in the first sequence showing Antonio in a domestic interior, the framed photograph carries the same meanings. Like Antonio's picture, the vase is a fragile and metonymic remnant of a once coherent and whole past that is constantly threatened by destruction.

The Teacher's daughter, whose entrance is signalled by the musical motif of the opening credits (and which therefore bears a strong association to commodity culture) is represented by what seem to be mutiple fashion magazine cut-outs of a model presented in various poses. Her duplicity, her rapid changing of outfits and poses, signals the rapidity of her consumer habits. She is herself a commodity and simulacrum, an image without substance,  an image which morphs with dizzying rapidity according to the dictates of ever-changing patterns of consumerism.

Among the paradoxes that are played out in the animation is the paradox of Antonio's desire to return to an earlier mode of capitalism, which engendered the one he is currently experiencing. He inhabits a post-industrial and post-modern society but seeks return to an industrial and modern one, the one he finds in his memories. I designate this an industrial society because the steam locomotives point directly to the emergence of industry, and a modern one because certain cultural signifiers which appear in the land of memory (such as the professor's top hat and his instruments)  designate a late 20th century moment of bourgeois capitalism. The stereoscopic appearance of this land of memory is likewise a direct aesthetic quotation of this high modernist period; it is a form of photography which precedes the late capitalist and postmodern simulacrum or 'copy without an original.' Attempts to resolve this paradox are perhaps not as useful as noting simply that, as with the other characters, Antonio's memories are tainted with the retrospective realisation that all modernist moments lead to a later postmodern moment; the intrusion of this later moment functions as a comment on its pervasive influence.

At the same time, Antonio's break with postmodern society is never really definitive or finalised one. He is forced out of his memories when he remembers his granddaughter Daniella; for her, he makes an attempt at reintegration into postmodern society. Yet he once again finds himself incapable of survival; as soon as he becomes visible, he is commodified by the other inhabitants of the building, who bedeck him with ribbons and deposit their commodities on him.

Antonio's departure is then followed finally by Daniella's poignant search for her grandfather, which also functions as her search for her own identity or origin. As she wanders through the streets alone, she sees her own reflection, multiplied by the mirrors which structure her urban space. Daniella is faced with what Jacques Lacan termed the 'mirror stage,' a child's confrontation with his/her mirror image. (2)
For Lacan, the child's confrontation with the mirror image constitutes the first steps in the production of an ego and is crucial to the child's development of individual subjectivity. Yet the multiplicity of reflections here makes Daniella's identification as a unique subject impossible. The impossibility of choosing an identity, of deciding which image is representative of the original, is as much a challenge as finding her grandfather and her root in time and history.

The resolution of Transformation sees Daniella's reunion with her grandfather and their retreat into an atemporal world of memory. This optimistic concluding note of reunion is nevertheless marred by both Daniella's and Antonio's failure to find a place in society, and their need to leave reality for a fantasy that does not always produce positive emotions.

Ultimately, the titular "transformation" itself remains ambiguous and posits an almost infinite number of questions and problems. Is transformation reactionary or reactive, a necessity if one is to survive in postindustrial society? Or is it on the contrary a free and independent choice, a choice which is unmediated by the strictures of consumerism or late capitalism ? Is transformation the very condition of capitalism (since it requires us to change endlessly on a par with the market)? Finally, is transformation positive or negative?

Our inability to find straightforward responses to any of these questions points perhaps to the pervasiveness of the postmodern, late-capitalist need for transformation; the hermeneutic duplicity of our response to the animation stages our own constant subjection to the dictates of endless metamorphosis. Nothing can be singular, or true, or real, for too long.

1) Macfayden, David,  Yellow Crocodiles and Blue Oranges, (MontrĂ©al: Mcgill-Queen's University Press, 2005), p. xii.
2) Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991)
3) Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Glaser, (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994)
4) See for example Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (New York: Brunner Routledge, 1996), p. 42.

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