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Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect by Mel Y Chen (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2014
pp. 149-151 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0033

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Animal, vegetable, mineral—three disparate categories, or all part of a greater ecology? Scholars have been mapping out intersections between affect theory, queers-of-color scholarship, disability studies, and animal studies in order to create productive considerations of the complex web of their conceptual, historical, and experiential interrelationships. The ambitious title of Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect signals the even greater aim of Mel Y. Chen’s cultural studies project: to bring together all of these fields through a biopolitical lens that expands beyond the binary of life and death through the concept of “animacy,” which Chen defines as the degrees of animateness and inanimateness that govern the hierarchies of all these imbricated ontologies. Opening up biopolitics to the polysemous nuances of animacy, a term Chen draws from her linguistic training to encompass the vicissitudes of liveness and agency, allows for the clear thematic organization of her book despite what may seem a daunting task in terms of the scope of her many interventions and interlocutors. Her archive focuses on Asian and Asian-American studies, with an emphasis on Chinese and Japanese history, art, and film; however, the range of her deliberately heterogeneous objects of analysis runs from furries to Nadya Suleman (a.k.a. “Octomom”) to Michael Jackson’s iconic music video for “Black and White,” illustrating the ubiquity of animacy in our contemporary culture. The organic and inorganic are mutually affective and not even the most inanimate of objects are truly lacking in animacy; as Chen points out, “the stakes of revisiting animacy are real and immediate, particularly as the coherence of ‘the body’ is continually contested” (7).

Animacies consists of six chapters distributed into three parts: “Words,” “Animals,” and “Metals.” Chen carefully constructs the argument of the book, with each section addressing a specific constellation of concerns that provides the foundation for the next chapter’s exploration of ideas. The first chapter in the “Words” section, “Language and Mattering Humans,” addresses the origin of animacy as a concept from cognitive linguistics and then traces the term as a central metaphor in a discussion of de-animation and objectification in hierarchies of animacy going back to Aristotle. The instances of language that she analyzes are dehumanizing insults, such as “macaca” and wang bak dan (turtle’s egg), that created political furor in the United States and Hong Kong (34–35); to Chen, this “objectification is a preeminent kind of mattering” related to the divide between humans and animals, as well as objectification and dehumanization as they have been considered in critical race, feminist, and disability theory (23). Her use of animacy here is twofold: the invocation of differing degrees of liveness as insult in relation to hierarchies of superiority and inferiority, as well as the liveness of language itself. The second chapter, “Queer Animation,” will be familiar to those working on queer theory: Chen reframes the debates about the re-appropriation and status of “queer” in the academy and politics as a debate about the word’s re-animation and de-animation as it relates to the use of Foucault’s governmentality as applied to the biopolitics of language.

Marriage to a monkey, one of J. L. Austin’s examples of a failed performative in How to Do Things with Words, serves as Chen’s segue into the “Animals” section by bringing together animality, sexuality, and race in the context of language. “Queer Animality” turns to the Yellow Peril and Fu Manchu anti-Chinese representations, in their confluence of animals and queers, as the specters abjected from normalcy within the hierarchy of animacy. The symbolic force of animals within the racialized biopolitical schema prompts Chen, in “Animals, Sex, Transubstantiation,” to think about animals intersectionally in terms of the multiple uses of “transness,” such as translation and transnationality. This attention to the animate dimensions of animality and sexuality leads to readings of the neutering of animals and the presentation of animal and human sexual relations in Nagisa Oshima’s Max, Mon Amour and Xu Bing’s performance-art installation “Cultural Animal.” Provocatively, Chen poses the destabilizing figure of the animal-without-genitals as an affective counterpart to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s body-without-organs...

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