The Moveable Image
Stray notes about the new images
I wrote this text at the tail end of 2021 as a post-script to an essay that was never published. At the time, this section felt out of place but in light of the recent popular adoption of text-to-image and GPT ai tools it feels much more relevant. I plan on expanding these ideas into something longer, but I thought for now I’d post the original text unedited, with a few footnotes for context.
The Moveable Image
Lev Manovich described the advent of digital cinema as a return to its roots in 19th Century animation.1 He was right, images were once again fully animated in a frame-by-frame manner, imbuing them with revolutionary potential by proximity to the plasmatic2 change inherent to the form. Despite this, these images, however affected, however animated, maintain their connection to 20th Century cinema in their relationship to movability, or rather mobility. To come to life they must be made to move, only viewable within a persistence of vision. In this way, even in their most technologically advanced forms, moving images are tied to their roots in the film apparatus of the last century. Their reach restricted by how far a bulb or pixel can throw them and, most importantly, trapped in a linear movability. The result is therefore one of revolution at a distance.
This revolutionary medium, hailed by both Benjamin and Eisenstein as a way to free man from his capitalist binds,3 feels restrictive from the contemporary vantage point. Linear movement feigns progress in its relationship to forward motion, despite its implicit exclusion of mobility in all other directions. It’s through this limiting feature that the neoliberal order4 has usurped all revolutionary potential from digital cinema. A perfect one-track partner for an ideology whose only ambition seems to be the reproduction of itself ad infinitum. While its leaders remain willfully disengaged from reality, the animating spirit5 has taken root in another type of image.
We are now in an era defined by animatable images, or what we might call the moveable image. The moveable image transcends the binds of linearity and therefore the individualism that defines its precursor, the moving image. We now move images through space and time, wires and thin air, move them now faster - now slower as we scroll on one social media, or swipe on another. At times they leave our grasp and move through degradation cycles,6 transforming their pixels and remerging back to us, this time as a .gif, and the next as a meme powerful enough to animate an electorate. We move them into archives from which neural-networked artificial intelligence learns, perhaps representing the purest animating power of the contemporary movable image. The power to move from image to dataset, to completely novel connection beyond the scope of human imagination.7
If revolution at a distance had the potential to map its disobedience onto those within view,8 then omnipresent revolution is sure to radically multiply that potentiality. The singular and external of the moving image become both plural and internal in the movable image. Revolution in your pocket, mutability at the tips of your fingers. Collective reimagining as a feature of the animated world; plasmatic by nature. A world animated by adaptability, by movability. The world of the moveable image, of our cultural moment, materializes what Esther Leslie describes as “the utopian axis of animation - motility and mobility is its propulsive force, it’s opening onto an infinite, antigravitational other-space.”9
The cover image is by Justin Jay Wang
This is a reference to Lev Manovich’s essay What Is Digital Cinema? written in 1995 and published as a chapter in his influential book The Language of New Media in 2001.
Sergei Eisenstein developed the term plasmatic to describe animation. He likened the frequent transformations of cartoon bodies and the in-betweenness of animation in general to evolutionary biology. He thought there was revolutionary potential in showing a viewing public the potential for plasmatic change.
See On Disney (1941) by Sergei Eisenstein and Experience and Poverty (1933) by Walter Benjamin
This phrase was already a bit out of vogue in 2021 but feels even more so in 2023. Regardless, what is meant by “neoliberal order” is the late 20th-century free market capitalist class that wields legacy media institutions as a means to maintain the status quo.
See Scott Bukatman The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit, University of California Press, 2012
See In Defense of the Poor Image (2009) by Hito Steyerl
See the lecture The Inverse Uncanny Valley: What We See When AI Sees Us by Benjamin Bratton, www.youtube.com/live/2E3kQqrHwqo?feature=share
Scott Bukatman talks about the mirroring of disobedience from Cartoons onto the viewing public in his essay Some Observations Pertaining to Cartoon Physics; or, The Cartoon Cat in the Machine in the book Animating Film Theory edited by Karen Beckman
Animation and History, Esther Leslie, from Animating Film Theory edited by Karen Beckman
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