SHEETS-JOHNSTONE (2009) – Animation: the fundamental, essential, and properly descriptive concept


SHEETS-JOHNSTONE, Maxine. Animation: the fundamental, essential, and properly descriptive concept. Continental Philosophy Review, v.42, n.3, p.375-400, 2009.

  • Everything living is animated. Flowers turn toward the sun; pill bugs curl into spheres; lambs rise on untried legs, finding their way into patterned coordinations. The phenomenon of movement testifies to animation as the foundational dimension of the living. p.375
  • Animation encapsulates what is fundamental to life, the vibrant and spirited way living creatures come into the world and the vibrant and spirited way that is gone when they die; it engenders dynamics, the essence of life in all its varied and vital kinetic contours; it articulates in an exacting linguistic sense the living wholeness of animate forms and is thus properly descriptive of life itself. What is fundamental is that we are indeed animate forms of life, and as such, are necessarily and from the beginning subjects of a world, an Umwelt in von Uexku¨ll’s sense. The dynamics essential to our progressive sense-makings of ourselves and of the world are intrinsic to and inherent in our primal animation and in our being the particular animate forms we are. p.376

Basic realities of affectivity

  • Affectivity is a staple of life. In the most rudimentary sense, it is what motivates creatures to approach or avoid. In this sense, it is one aspect of what is biologically specified as a defining feature of life, namely, ‘responsivity’(Curtis, 1975) a feature affectively characterizable as interest or aversion, hence as movement toward or away from something in the environment. (Schneirla, 1959). As empirically and phenomenologically shown elsewhere, there is a dynamic congruency of affectivity and movement in the everyday lives of animate forms.(Sheets-Johnstone, 1999a, 2006). p.376
  • In the ordinary course of everyday human life, the affective and the kinetic are clearly dynamically congruent; emotion and movement coincide. If they did not normally coincide, there would be no possibility of feigning by kinetically enacting emotional dynamics. The word enacting is precisely correct in this instance, for it is a matter of putting something into a form of a specified kind, in this instance, a kinetic form, which means going through the motions of X, that is, putting a non-felt feeling into a performance, as in, for example, shaking hands with, and smiling at someone whom one actually detests. Grammatically, the word ‘enact’, as the etymology of its prefix indicates, means ‘‘to bring [something] into a certain condition or state,’’ precisely as in the word’s common usage: ‘to make into a law’. p.377
  • (note 10) Varela et al. (1991). The word enaction as defined originally by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch reads: ‘‘We propose as a name the term enactive to emphasize the growing conviction that cognition is not the representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs’’ (Ibid., p. 9). p.377
  • Indeed, the affective quiverings, tensions, lightnesses, shudderings, pressures, constrictions, extensions, heavinesses, and so on, that one feels in a thoroughly corporeal sense in anger, anticipation, compassion, worry, and shame, for example, are ongoing dynamic affective happenings. Hence, whatever the dynamic stirrings and informings, they are qualitatively distinct, which means they have a formally recognizable bodily-felt character. p.379
  • In sum, we are first and foremost animate beings who, in being animate, are alive to our animateness, which is to say that whatever affects us moves through us, permeating the whole of our being and moving us to move in ways dynamically congruent with the ongoing stirrings and commotions we feel. It might be noted that such understandings of our foundational animation anchor concepts such as pre-reflective self-awareness in the dynamic realities of kinesthesia and the affective/tactile-kinesthetic body. p.379
  • Rather than attending to the emotionally caught up corps engage´ as in the studies above, Thompson’s enactive analysis of emotion is skewed by being set exclusively within the framework of protentions, relying thus heavily on the notion of a movement disposition—‘‘the welling up of an impulse,’’ a ‘‘readiness to action.’’ (Thompson, 2007, pp. 361, 363–364) While that perspective approximates to the fact that emotions move us to move, it does not, as indicated above, elucidate the fact that emotions are themselves dynamic, moving through us in subtle and complex ways. p.380

Primal animation

  • What is missing in Thompson’s account of ‘‘enactive emotion’’ is the basic reality of animation that defines the organism as a whole and that, in defining the whole organism, is the conceptual portal to understanding the dynamics of experience from top to bottom and bottom to top, i.e., in the full sense of animate being. Indeed, the ‘‘primordial dynamism’’ that Thompson takes as the defining nature of ‘‘emotion and valence’’ rests on animation. p.381
  • Patocˇka states, ‘‘Our primary experience of ourselves is … an experience of the primordial dynamism that manifests itself in our awareness of our existence as a moving, active being.’’ (Patocka, 1998 [1968–1969], p. 40). p.381
  • Primal animation, a descriptive term coined and used prior to the discovery of ‘‘primordial dynamism’’ in the writings of Patocka and Thompson, concretely links our sense of aliveness to movement, to kinesthesia and to our tactile-kinesthetic bodies. The descriptive term resonates along the lines of ‘‘primordial dynamism’’ but with the following significant differences: unlike Patocˇka’s ‘‘primordial dynamism,’’ which, ‘‘as we experience it, characterizes the spatiality of our physical presence,’’ (Patocka, 1998 [1968–1969], p. 41) primal animation derives most fundamentally from movement and is thus not simply a spatial but a spatiotemporal-energic phenomenon; analogously, unlike Thompson’s ‘‘primordial dynamism,’’ which is limned exclusively as a temporal phenomenon, notably, a matter of temporal protentions epitomized in emotion as a ‘‘readiness to action,’’ (Thompson, 2007, p 361) primal animation is a spatio-temporal-energic whole, a kinetic liveliness originally in the service of learning our bodies and learning to move ourselves in face of a surrounding world. (Sheets-Johnstone, 1999b, Chap. 5). p.382
  • That we come into the world moving means we are cognitively attuned in a sense making manner discovering ourselves and our surrounding world in and through our affective/tactile-kinesthetic bodies from the very beginning. p.382
  • Primal animation brings with it the most primitive form of consciousness, which is consciousness of one’s own movement, hence ‘‘kinesthetic consciousness.’’ This form of consciousness develops in the womb. Indeed, tactility and kinesthesia are neurologically the primary senses to develop. In a broader sense, this consciousness is a ‘‘kinetic consciousness.’’ It includes a developing consciousness of one’s movement as a three-dimensional happening ‘‘in space’’ and is intimately tied to a basic responsivity to movement in one’s surrounding world, most importantly to a distinction between the animate and the inanimate. p.383
  • Primal animation is furthermore the conceptual corollary of what Scott Kelso fittingly describes as ‘‘intrinsic dynamics,’’ dynamics that define ‘‘coordination tendencies,’’ including both subtending older patterns or habits and spontaneously arising patterns that arise in the formation of a new skill. These tendencies and the patterns themselves are intrinsic in the double sense of defining coordination dynamics at the level of both brain and behavior. p.383
  • A related question naturally arises regarding the thesis that pre-reflective selfawareness requires a nervous system, a thesis bolstered by Thompson’s earlier claim set forth in the context of specifying ‘‘the enactive approach’’ in cognitive science, namely, that ‘‘[t]he nervous system … creates meaning.’’ (53) The idea that meaning is created by the nervous system is rather odd. Oddness aside, we may surely affirm that intact living subjects, not nervous systems, create meaning, and in this context point out that a bacterium is a living subject. It initiates a change in direction because it finds the current environment unsuitable or ‘‘noxious.’’ (54) It is thus not simply counterintuitive but self-contradictory to say that a bacterium is unaware of itself turning away and making a directional change since the turning and change come about through its own self-movement. The lack of a nervous system does not therefore preclude meaning, neither in the sense of ‘‘creating’’ meaning nor in the sense of meaningful movement. (55) Indeed, evolutionary forms of life are living subjects of particular Umwelts, and as such create synergies of meaningful movement, (56) synergies that assure their survival. p.384
  • Of import in this context are the observations of renown physiological psychologist Roger Sperry: not only is the brain an organ of and for coordinated movement,62 but the function of consciousness or subjective experience is coordinated movement.63 The significance of self-movement and the consciousness of self-movement through the entire evolutionary spectrum of self-moving forms of life can hardly be ignored. In short, ‘‘animation of the body’’ is of singular moment to sentience, feeling alive, and consciousness, however much it conflicts with Thompson’s notion of ‘‘immanent purposiveness.’’ p.385
  • The empirical realities of animation are of moment in both an individual and evolutionary sense, and this because the realities naturally engender life, time, and affectivity as well as movement. These four dimensions are not just intimately linked but intermeshed, interwoven one with the other such that any one is not present without the others. (64) The concept of animation, a concept that derives from the realities of animation, is thus understandably a corrective to theoretical-linguistic band-aids, not just the band-aid of ‘‘enactive,’’ as in the awkward notions of ‘‘enactive emotion’’ and ‘‘enactive evolution’’ (65) and the band-aid of ‘‘embodiment,’’ but the band-aid of ‘‘embedding’’ in order that a subject, notably a human, is connected to a ‘‘world.’’ p.386
  • Humans alone, notably modern, present-day ones, languish, ensnared in a subject/world divide. It is no wonder that cognitive scientists and philosophers strive to alleviate their suffering by eradicating the dichotomy. In truth, the problem is one of their own making, a fabrication of thought, making necessary, in today’s cognitive science language, an ‘‘embedding’’ of ‘‘the subject’’ in ‘‘the world,’’ or in the language of some existentialist philosophers, a ‘‘chiasm’’ or intertwining of subject and world. (67) Animation is a corrective to such ‘‘embeddings’’ and ‘‘chiasmatic’’ solutions: it is the mot juste that properly describes living creatures as living and thus necessarily, that is, naturally, in the full sense of nature, links them inseparably to and within a spatio-temporal world distinctive to their ways of living, i.e., to an Umwelt. (68) It bears notice too that animation is of distinctive moment with respect to what is commonly termed ‘‘background consciousness.’’ Any form of life that moves itself—any animate form—knows itself to be moving not because there is a self in the verbal locution but because there is a kinetic consciousness of some kind, a consciousness subserving movement, hence not out of grammatical necessity, but out of biological necessity. Thus if ‘‘homeodynamic regulation of the body’’ is an indication of ‘‘background consciousness,’’69 then surely the motility of bacteria qualifies as ‘‘background consciousness,’’ and this in spite of the fact that background consciousness is aligned with ‘‘dynamic neural activity.’’70 Background consciousness’’ is indeed a perplexing locution, a linguistic camouflage of something needing explicit elucidation by way of empirical facts of life. p.386-87
  • In effect, the affective/tactile-kinesthetic body, the felt body, can hardly be ignored since it is precisely the experiential foundation of ‘‘the fundamental phenomenon of sentience,’’ ‘‘the feeling of being alive,’’ and hence definitive of ‘‘primal’’ or ‘‘core’’ consciousness.’’ In turn, and contrary to Thompson, all sensory modalities cannot be excluded in an elucidation of sentience, ‘‘primal,’’ ‘‘core,’’ or ‘‘background’’ consciousness: kinesthesia and proprioception are foundational from the beginning of life onward. p.387-88
  • Each recent piece of research confirms the need to look at the foundational phenomenon of animation and to wean ourselves away not only from the brain as if it were the oracle at Delphi, but away from a separation of brain from body as if the morphology of nature categorically and axiologically divided us into an elevated top and an inelegant bottom, away too, we might note, from a categorical separation of faculties such that one has virtually to plead the case for a non-separation of cognition and emotion, (Thompson, 2007, p. 371) and finally, away too from a separation of a philosophy of the organism from a philosophy of mind as if one could sever nature, creating a division between living and sentience and hence between living and sensemaking. (Ibid., pp. 236–237; see also Sheets-Johnstone, 2008, Chaps. V and VIII). Indeed, so long as one is wedded to the notion that the human mind–body or body–body problem (Hanna and Thompson, 2003 and Thompson, 2007).) will be solved when we can scientifically determine that ‘‘there is something it is like to be that body,’’ i.e., that body ‘‘whose organizational dynamic processes can become constitutive of a subjective point of view,’’ (Thompson, 2007, p. 237; see also Zahavi, 1999, 2000, 2005) one will remain closed to the dynamic realities of animation that, as indicated earlier, constitute the all-inclusive and spontaneously arising affective, tactile-kinesthetic, sense-making, subject/world nature of human life. p.389
  • Each experience is what it is. The challenge is not to determine scientifically ‘‘what it is like to be that body.’’ The challenge is to language experience, which, to begin with, quintessentially requires phenomenological attention to experience and a concomitant recognition of the fact that language is not experience. p.390
  • That we are first and foremost animate organisms is a truth Husserl consistently recognized. The truth merits highlighting if not accentuating. In his lifelong studies of sense-making—of constitution, be-souling, meaning-bestowing, sedimentations, horizons, protentions, retentions, and more—Husserl wrote not about active—or enactive—organisms; he wrote not about embodied organisms; he wrote not about embedded organisms; he wrote throughout about animate organisms.91 Animation is the ground floor of our being alive in all its affective, perceptual, cognitional, and imaginative guises, stages, practices, and surrounding worlds. In other words, animation grounds the full range of those intricate and varying dynamics that constitute and span the multiple dimensions of our livingness. Moreover it bears emphasizing that animate organisms are subjects of a world. Indeed, animate organisms, being subjects, are never without a surrounding world. p.390
  • In short, Husserl is at pains to underscore the fact that living bodies—animate organisms—are not entities in a vacuum but are kinetically, affectively, thematically— experientially—anchored to and engaged in meaningful ways in a surrounding world, i.e., engaged in synergies of meaningful movement that support their survival. p.391
  • The basic question that needs to be asked is: How is it that ‘doings’ become familiar? The answer is clearly rooted in dynamics, in the qualitative tactile-kinesthetically felt kinetic dynamics of hammering, of brushing one’s teeth, of sweeping, of typing, of playing a Bach prelude, and so on. Familiar dynamics are woven into our bodies and are played out along the lines of our bodies; they are kinesthetic/kinetic melodies in both a neurological and experiential sense. A melody to begin with is a qualitative phenomenon, qualitative in virtue of its spatio-temporal-energic character. p.393
  • When melody is a matter of movement in Luria’s sense—when the melody is being played by oneself, whether a matter of writing one’s name, playing the flute, dancing, brushing one’s teeth, ice skating, or running with the ball—creation and constitution of the kinesthetic/kinetic melody are phenomenologically concurrent. p.393
  • Motors have nothing to do with experience or with animate organisms. The qualitative affective-kinetic dynamics of grief that fold the body inward in spatially contorted and rhythmically writhing ways contrast strikingly with the qualitative affectivekinetic dynamics of joy, for example, that spatially expand the body outward and infuse it in a lightness and buoyancy that are spatially and temporally open-ended. p.395
  • A motorology furthermore precludes recognition of experienced corporeal-kinetic intentionalities that correlate with neurological corporeal-kinetic patternings. Such intentionalities are appropriately specified not in terms of sensorimotor processes but in terms of sensory-kinetic realities. p.396
  • Clearly, kinesthesia and the broader term ‘proprioception’ cannot be transmogrified into forms of ‘action’ or ‘embodiment’, or into a motorology and in any way retain their essential phenomenological qualities, qualities foundational to animate life. Indeed, tactile-kinesthetic invariants ground our basic speciesspecific human repertoire of movement possibilities and undergird our affective social understandings. A first step toward capturing these essential qualities and invariants is recognition of sensory-kinetic bodies, not sensorimotor ones. p.396
  • In sum, actually lived through experiences of emotion and movement that are dynamic through and through and whose dynamics resonate in bodily-felt spatiotemporal-energic experiences warrant full and assiduous attention and languaging. To bring this language to the fore is correlatively to bring a descriptively refined acuity to ‘‘emotion experience’’ such that the dynamics of affect and movement and their congruency that is present from the beginning of human life is manifestly evident. An enactivist approach, in passing over this history, is adultist. It takes familiarity for granted, the familiarity that allows ‘transparency’—a term that might well be qualified as the adult luxury of an ‘‘unreflected absorption’’ in the world—to be realized. We are not born with a ready-made transparency either of ourselves or of the world: we learn our bodies and learn to move ourselves.  In the course of this learning we become familiar with ourselves as animate beings in a surrounding world. We explore ourselves and the world about us and build up habits on the basis of our growing familiarities. We develop a repertoire of ‘I cans’. ‘Transparency’ is not only not a ready-made but is grounded through and through in experience, which itself is grounded in both our evolutionary heritage to explore and make sense of the world and in the actual explorations and discoveries we all made as infants. p.397
  • In contrast, animate beings come ready-made for living and for being described in their livingness without the need of lexical qualifiers or revivifications. They are already in and of the world because they are animate and animated: they are already living, and being already living, are already making sense of themselves and of the world in which they find themselves and of which they are a part. p.397

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