Notes on Mel Y. Chen’s Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Duke University Press, 2012.

This book “ draws upon recent debates about sexuality, race, environment, and affect to consider how matter that is considered insensate, immobile, deathly or otherwise “wrong” animates cultural life in important ways” (p. 2). In the context of the course on embodiment that I’m currently teaching, this book has helped me to think about expectations of bodies (both human and non-human) and how these expectations shape what is possible for particular kinds of bodies.

Chen begins with a discussion of linguistic’s uptake of this term: “animacy most generally refers to the grammatical effects of the sentience or liveness of nouns” (p. 2). “The hikers that rocks crush” is a phrase that gives us trouble because we expect rocks to be lower on the animacy hierarchy than hikers.

“[S]uch an animating principles avowedly refused a priori divisions between mind and body, the philosophical legacy of Descartes which today remains cumbrous to scholars of material agency” (p. 4). Much of the work in the embodiment class had come back to ways of resisting or subverting the mind-body division.

I also like that Chen allows for multiple ways to take up the key term animacy, and considers it broadly: “It is a generative asset that the word animacy, much like other critical terms, bears no single standard definition” (p. 2).

Finally, the following is from a useful view in Reviews in Cultural Theory, by Melissa Haynes:

“Leaden is a synonym for inert, spiritless, and lifeless, and yet in the third section of Animacies Chen shows us how lead, from the bottom of the animacy hierarchy, came to circulate as a lively figure in the imagination of the American public. In 2007, the United States was gripped by panic that the paint on Chinese-manufactured toys posed a threat of lead poisoning to (mostly white) American children. Chen argues that in this scare, “a new material-semiotic form of lead emerged” (166) that was racialized as Chinese, and animated by anxieties about the porosity of bodily and national borders. This new lead threatened to contaminate the upper echelons of the animacy hierarchy via its associations with ideas about black violence, queer orality, and cognitive disability; Chen contends that lead provoked such intense anxiety because it destabilized race, class, sexuality and ability, performing the vulnerability of these categories of privilege. Lead, having become animate itself, threatened to drag other bodies down on the animacy hierarchy.”


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