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Mel Y. Chen offers an enticing study of what is produced at the intersection of cognitive linguistics, queer of color studies, critical animal studies, and disability theory in Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. “Animacies” are those animate, and animated, states of being that are regulated through political spheres. To explore what has or is imbued with animacy, for Chen, is a transdisciplinary process that breaks new ground in thinking about the “big concepts” and identifiers like “race,” “gender” and “sexuality.” In other words, what is animated, and correlatively anthropomorphized, and how it is done tells us a lot about interpersonal relations—between humans, and between humans and non-humans.
Chen’s exploration of animacy unfolds in a tripartite structure: the first section on “word,” or how language animates (and, it seems, “animalizes”; Chapter 2 also provides a terrific critical history of the appropriation and re-appropriation of “queer” both within and without academia); the second and most successful on “animals,” and specifically queer animality; and the third and final section intriguingly on “metals,” particularly on the animate qualities of lead and mercury, which, in Chen’s estimation, have been transformed into racialized tropes of “toxicity” and “otherness.”
Animacies both theoretically and methodologically lies at such a queer disciplinary crossroads that it’s impossible to situate or read it alongside comparable studies. While groundbreaking, Animacies’ disciplinary roots lay in linguistics, whereby Chen traces the etymology and breaks down the linguistic history of the adjectival term “animacy” (and its verb “animate”) and then proceeds to unlock the terms radical potential through analyzing how animacy operates as a force of biopolitics (Marx and Foucault) and is, furthermore, a profoundly anti-humanist force at that (Deleuze and Guattari). This later realization allows her to animate “animals” and “metals” to read how sexist, racialized, and thereby bigoted, discourses that seem wholly “human” are mapped onto non-humans, from chimpanzees to mercury.
The second section on “animals,” in which Chen thinks about how animacy complicates the boundary between human and non-human, and how this boundary becomes both racialized and sexualized, is the most critically substantive section of the book. Even though there are moments of interpretive “overreach” (or, through a positive lens, Chen’s “interpretive creativity”),—as when she perceives the physical mimicry between Fu Manchu and his pet monkey through a reading of a DVD cover and as a signal of the pervasive “missing Asian male phallus,” or when she does not fully differentiate between sameness and similarity in her reading of neutered animals and neutered queers—these chapters brilliantly demonstrate how critical studies particular to race and sexuality can benefit from animal studies. “To examine the transness of animal figures in cultural production or philosophical discourse (beyond their biology, queerness, or pure animality, for instance),” Chen writes, “is also to interrogate how humans’ analogic mapping to and from animals (within imagined, lived, or taxonomic intimacies) paradoxically survives the cancellation wrought by the operations of abjection, casting a trans light back on the human.” Chen realizes this most fully in her reading of “intimate” relationship between Sandra Nash and her pet chimp Travis, who notoriously ate the face of Charla Nash after she playfully teased the chimp with a stuffed toy. Deplored by the state and investigators as “condemnable” and “sick,” Chen understands this “failed kinship” as the vexation of public and private space, reminiscent of the debate at the foundations of the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court case.
“Thinking and feeling critically about animacy encourages opening to the senses of the world, receptivity, vulnerability”—a sentiment most emphatically running through Chen’s final two chapters, and especially her afterward on “The Spill and the Sea.” Chen convincing shows us that “animacy” is just not a rhetorical matter, hence her attempt to work toward “new materialisms” that will allow us to think beyond our (white, male, hetero) human-centric worldview: “[t]he new materialism we can pursue are those that not only diagnose the ‘facts’ by which humans are not animals are not things…but simultaneously reveal such ‘facts’ to be the real uncanny permeating the world we know.” The challenge, Chen rightly posits, will be in how these new materialisms can remain “fiercely sensitive” to difference—of how difference (sexual, gendered, sexed, racial, and so forth) can be understood and respected without being differentiated through some kind of morally hierarchy.
Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect
By Mel Y. Chen
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822352723, 298 pp.