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  • Ruined Vitality. A review of David Wills, Inanimation:Theories of Inorganic Life
  • Adam R. Rosenthal (bio)
Wills, David. Inanimation: Theories of Inorganic Life. U of Minnesota P, 2016.

Inanimation is the third installment of David Wills's technological trilogy of the human, which began with Prosthesis (1995) and Dorsality: Thinking Back through Technology and Politics (2008). Like those prior works, Inanimation traces the difficult-to-sound border between life and death, the human and non-human, humanity and animality, and man and machine. In distinction to those first two forays, however, Inanimation's focus on figures of inorganic life sets it on a new path, one still concerned with but in no way determined by the human's technological hang-ups. Instead, it explores the supposed dead-ends of vitality: a search for life in "all the wrong places," as Wills puts it in his preface, including such unlikely concerns as punctuation, mechanical angels, and plush stuffed birds (x). Inanimation thus emerges out of the rubble of Wills's now twenty-year long deconstructive project, rising up like a mechanical phoenix whose passage through life's technicity allows it to speak (and sing) from the other side of this ruinated notion of vitality. As such, its song is both compelling and at times difficult to make out, for like any "new" species that doesn't conform to traditional taxonomic principles, the foreignness of its cry strains the ear. At its most daring moments, Inanimation takes this risk—which is also that of catachresis—and initiates a re-education of the senses to perceive what "lives" within those inorganic structures whose ostensibly merely nominal claims to vitality Wills forces us to rethink.

The process of sensorial retraining, and above all of hearing and seeing life otherwise, is a theme that recurs throughout Inanimation, beginning of course with its title. "Inanimation," Wills reminds us, is not a figure of his own coinage but one born in the early seventeenth century whose verbal form, "to inanimate," would become largely obsolete by the eighteenth (ix). Before any hint of privation or lifelessness entered its semantic field, inanimation referred to the act of enlivening or animating. Only by the mid-seventeenth century did the privative sense of dis-animation emerge. This key figure, like a Freudian primal word, thus serves to name the interpenetration of the living with the non-living, which is to say the inseparability of animate and inanimate structures that problematizes our most basic and fundamental assumptions about what it is to live. At the same time, the resuscitation of the term "inanimation" from near obsolescence constitutes the first of what we might now consider to be Wills's acts of necromancy, in which he gives an old word new life. Like Derrida's practice of paleonymy (the re-inscription of an old word with a new meaning), Wills's revitalization of certain strategic figures within Inanimation— a practice he repeats with each of the work's three main headings—alters not only their meanings and conceptual bearing but their historical trajectory, opening them to alternative survivals. It is no exaggeration to say that a kind of vital paleonymy is at the heart of Inanimation, or to note that the metaphorical value of such resuscitative acts has never been more in question. If the concept of life should not be adopted from the natural sphere but instead applied to everything that has a history (as Wills, following Benjamin, suggests), then it is precisely the vital signs of language that must above all be reckoned with, for it is a central tenet of Inanimation that "language itself generates and self-generates as a privileged form, perhaps the privileged form, of inanimate life" (xii). This also means that Inanimation is as much a force of in/animation as it is a strictly theoretical venture, and this ambivalence is inextricable from the project itself.

What, then, is life? Inanimation enters the contemporary fray surrounding this ancient question by way of three somewhat improbable motifs. For while the prospects of artificial intelligence and androids today pose high-tech specters of the automation of the organic, by comparison Wills's selection of the topoi of "Autobiography," "Translation...

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