Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Animation, continuity and change

There has been a lot of animation going on in our house during the pandemic. As one of the partners in Superpower Partners, I have been helping make two very short animated films for Dawlaty, a Syrian civil society organisation. The first of these is now finished, on sexual violence against women in Syria, and you can watch it on Vimeo with either Arabic or English subtitles.

And at the same time, daughter Peggy has taken up animation, making several very short clips, some of a duck character, and others of circus performers.

Animation is about creating an illusion of movement. In reality, nothing in an animation drawing moves, but it is replaced by another drawing to give the illusion of movement. Put another way, the illusion is that several different drawings are one single changing drawing. The same illusion is at work in all films and videos—the photographic images on the screen don’t move, they are just replaced on the screen by other similar but different photographic images to give that illusion of movement.

For this Superpower Partners short, we didn’t want to make the characters move, but wanted to give a sense of life to the film through having them appear as if being drawn by an unseen hand, with shifting light and shade. The artwork was created physically in several different parts, so for one shot there might be as many as sixty variations of the image drawn in black ink, all of which were scanned into computers and then layered in Photoshop to create the many final images that made up the animated shot.

While a character remains on the screen, individual drawing elements appear and disappear. No drawing element remains present for the entire time a character is on screen. It’s like the old joke about the axe that has been in the family for generations, the handle of which has been replaced several times, and the head of which has also been replaced. How is it the same axe? In another old joke, a man realises he has been burgled: everything in his apartment has been stolen and replaced with an exact replica. In the film, the replicas are far from exact; instead the point is in the difference between one representation of the character and the next, and yet we accept the proposition that the same character is present through the succeeding changing representations.

Why does the human mind fall into this illusion? The simple answer is to invoke ‘persistence of vision’, but that phrase in itself doesn’t amount to an explanation, and the term has been rejected by some. Simply put the phrase suggests that physical limits in our eyes’ capabilities cause the illusion. A slightly more complex view is that the mind compensates for the limits in information received from the eyes by filling in the gaps with assumptions or extrapolations about what is being seen.

Human brains have evolved alonside the evolution of senses from something even more primitive to the limited senses we have today, where our eyes can still only detect a limited spectrum of colours, can only see a limited scale of small detail, and can only distinguish a limited number of successive images in a short span of time. Ancestor species must have had an even poorer ability to see fine grain detail, and a lower ability to distinguish colours. This may be why our evolved brains continue to be able to extrapolate an understanding of monochrome images even when we are used to seeing a full rainbow of colours, and why 20th Century television was successful despite its very low resolution compared to today’s high resolution screens.

Evolution from more primitive sensory capacity may also be a part explanation for why we often find simple cartoon representations of characters more engaging than more complex images. While this could be because cartoon representations link to early infancy perception, it could also be because they engage parts of the brain developed earlier in evolution to interpret the world based on more limited information. Perhaps having to do this work of interpretation gives us a deep form of pleasure because it engages these early-evolved parts of the brain?

So interpreting and extrapolating a mental picture of the world based on limited information is likely a primary development in the evolution of the brain. There’s also more to consider in how we have adapted to cope with change. All of the brain’s basic work is to do with tracking and responding to change in our environment, and as our senses have evolved from lower capacity to higher capacity, so have our brains. Basic categories of friend and foe, threat and asset, must come before more detailed understanding of individual entities and locations.

So if we detect a tiger-like object in position A and then a moment later detect a tiger-like object in position B, we will rapidly extrapolate a mental image of a single threat on the move. But if we detect a tiger-like object in position A three days in a row, with no change in its appearance, we will treat it as a fixed feature of the landscape rather than a threat.

This can apply to food as well as to threats. Peggy’s pet lizard eats locusts. It will only eat locusts that move, and it will only eat them if they have been recently introduced into the lizard’s enclosure. If a locust survives a few days, the lizard treats it as part of the landscape and won’t eat it.

This primitive distinction between things that move fast and are seen as potential threats—or as food in the case of the lizard and the locusts—and things that don’t move fast and are seen as permanent features of the landscape, can be dangerously misleading, leading us to overestimate some threats, and under-estimate others. Most of us have an exaggerated image of continuity in our environment, particularly when we’re young. We think of the house we grow up in, the streets, trees, shops and schools around us, as a permanent landscape, when in fact they are slowly changing, and can come to change very rapidly indeed.

Some time ago I heard war reporter Janine di Giovanni compare experiences in Bosnia and Syria, and talk of how people in both places had difficulty in believing war threatened them in their own homes and neighbourhoods, even as attacks were escalating nearby. In a few weeks, months, and years, streets, towns, and cities, were changed beyond recognition.

Our exaggerated expectation of continuity in our environment seems likely to be a legacy of our evolution from more primitive senses and more primitive brains. Perhaps we also have an exaggerated or even illusory image of continuity in ourselves? In our bodies, individual cells grow and die, and the infant is replaced with the child, replaced with the adolescent, the adult. In the passing of the day, we wake, we eat, we sleep again with a great part of our mental functions shut down, perhaps we dream, and then we wake once more still imagining ourselves to be the same person we were a day ago.

Perhaps this too is an illusion brought on by evolutionary necessity? Perhaps in order for individuals to survive long enough for the species to reproduce, it is necessary to maintain an illusion of the self as something distinct from the wider world, something with integrity and continuity through time, rather than a flickering succession of variations?

Below: Animation by Mirai Mizue.

Friday, 25 September 2020

Feminism and Left power politics

Judith Butler was trending on Twitter this week as a result of an interview she gave for the New Statesman. The topic was the current debate about feminism and trans rights. Ten years ago I paid a little attention to what she said on feminism in the context of the war in Afghanistan. My post on that is here: Anti-imperialism über alles.

At that time, Judith Butler had said in another interview that gay rights and women’s rights were being “instrumentalised” to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Developing this argument, she said that feminist, anti-racist, and anti-war movements needed to join together.

This proposition may seem uncontroversial. However she then went on to make this joining together a test of whether any feminism was bona fide feminism. No true feminism could exist outside this merger between the categories of feminism, anti-racism, and anti-war politics.

Judith Butler uderstands anti-war politics to be that selective kind of anti-imperialism, the kind which is anti-war only if the war is being waged by the US or its allies, and which excuses wars waged by states and armed groups that are enemies of the US and its allies.

This was illustrated by her notorious remarks describing Hamas and Hezbollah as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left.” So a feminism that didn’t ally itself with that brand of anti-imerialism was not bona fide feminism, but Hamas and Hezbollah were bona fide Left despite their misogyny, their homophobia, their racism.

From this we can see that within Judith Butler’s merged category of feminism, anti-racism, and anti-war movements, there was a hierarchy where feminism and anti-racism were to be subservient to the interests of Western-centric anti-imperialist politics.

What started out as a claim that feminism was being instrumentalised by militarists on the Right turned into a move to put feminism at the service of the pro-authoritarian Left.

So yes, political organisations, states, armed groups, will seek to use civil movements such as feminism, to clothe themselves in virtue and to gain support. We should always question motives, actions, effects, whether it is done by a state or by a political activist group. Do their actions give civil movements true support and freedom to speak out, or do they manipulate and silence and hijack civil movements for their own political ends?

I pointed in that earlier post to a dreadful case of silencing where Code Pink activists tried to distort and silence the voices of Afghan women.

We think of the natural enemies of feminism, anti-racism, and gay rights as being on the Right, and that’s clearly often the case. But these civil movements also challenge the pro-authoritarian Left, again and again. So the pro-authoritarian Left has an interest in weakening the independence of feminist, anti-racist, and gay rights movements.

That thought leads me to look again at Judith Butler’s words on feminism and trans rights, and to question why this topic has become so politicised on the Left. A simple explanation is that the Left seeks to expand rights, so expands the groups it is concerned with as time goes on, but I feel this doesn’t explain how charged the issue has become.

For many, the political energy may be—and I think often is—the result of a straightforward sense of moral duty or even moral outrage on behalf of an oppressed group. For some others, an explanation might be that the Left defines itself as radical, and therefore it needs a frontier to fight on. Those who choose not to join the fight on the new frontier risk being outflanked and losing their identity as truly Left.

The core issue between some feminists and some trans rights activists is over whether biological sex as a category should be preserved in certain legal and social contexts, or whether it should be set aside and gender (socially constructed and self-defined) should always prevail. In short, is ‘woman’ to mean someone of the female sex or someone who identifies as a feminine gender.

Another major trend in tackling discrimination has been intersectionality, which is concerned with increasing understanding of the complexities and differentiations of experience within categories and sub-categories and overlapping categories of discrimination. It seems to me all the more strange then that the current debate is about an attempt to reduce differerentiation and merge categories.

Judith Butler in her New Statesman interview doesn’t even mention sex as a category, but suggests that feminists on the other side of the argument want a return “to a strictly biological understanding of gender…” Maybe some do, but I was under the impression that quite a number want to maintain separate categories of sex and gender. Judith Butler moves to merge these two categories and then defines the battle as being about dominance within the merged category.

This merging of sex and gender categories denies any space for alternatives. This recalls Judith Butler’s earlier move of merging categories of feminism, anti-racism, and anti-war, while insisting on the dominance within the merged category of anti-war politics.

There are a lot of arguments about the rights aspects and the practical implications of merging the categories of sex and gender, but I haven’t seen so much about the political implications of it for that part of the Left supported by Judith Butler. Is it possible that for some on the pro-authoritarian Left, one driver of their support for the subsuming of sex as a category into the category of gender could be that they sense an opportunity to weaken the independence of feminist movements?

We have seen trans issues being used as a wedge by the Right, particularly in the United States. Is it crazy to consider that power politics might also be driving some trans activism on the Left, as it drives so much else? That consideration should again lead to questioning motives, actions, effects, asking whether a wide range of trans people are being given true support and freedom to speak out, and whether the Left’s acivism on this is truly focused on serving the best interests of trans people, and not on “instrumentalising” the cause of trans rights.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

What we watched last year

Doing the accounts, I come across receipts for films streamed last year. So then I went looking through other places to see what else I’d watched in 2019. Some of the more memorable ones: This Happy Breed, The War Show, They Might Be Giants, The Shop Around The Corner, Robin And Marian, The Bad News Bears, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Oklahoma Crude, The Group, Design for Living, 12 Angry Men, The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, Woman Of The Year, The Deadly Affair, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, Heaven Can Wait, Shampoo, The Fortune, Fail Safe, Garbo Talks, Holiday, 11 Harrowhouse, California Suite, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Alex in Wonderland, Blume in Love, The Couch Trip, Mr Gay Syria, How To Change The World, Last Of The Red Hot Lovers, Stolen Kisses, The Adjustment Bureau, Your Name, My Dinner with Andre, Hester Street, Chilly Scenes Of Winter, Between The Lines, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Finnegan Begin Again, Tell It To The Judge, The File On Thelma Jordon, The Furies, The Strange Affair Of Uncle Harry, The Suspect, Cry Of The City, The Dark Mirror, Kiss And Make Up, Down To Earth, You’ll Never Get Rich, Marx Bros At the Circus, The Circus, The Graduate, The Last Picture Show, A Northern Soul, The Reluctant Revolutionary, Japan, A Story of Love And Hate, Hull’s Angel, The Minders, The Tall Guy, Clash By Night, Running on Empty, Very Good Girls. Plus all the episodes of The Sandbaggers.