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Review of Pulses of Abstraction: Episodes from a History of Animation

By Nicholas Orlando

Andrew R. Johnston, Pulses of Abstraction: Episodes from a History of Animation. University of Minnesota Press, 2020.

In his recent book, Pulses of Abstraction: Episodes from a History of Animation (2020), film and media scholar Andrew R. Johnston boldly declares his project as one of epistemology and technology. As an expansion of his doctoral dissertation, Johnston offers a critical supplement to contemporary animation and moving-image scholarship. As a cinematic and moving-image media mode, animation is perhaps best understood popularly as digitally rendered characters, objects, or worlds created through computer graphic imaging (CGI) technologies. One might think of the family-oriented Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), the dystopic Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011), or, more recently, the thrilling Avengers: Infinity War (2018). However, animation encompasses far more than Disney/Pixar anthropomorphisms, motion capture transformations, and digital blockbuster exhilarations. These aesthetic forms have set the “norm” for current film production, shifting away from expansive location shooting and elaborately designed physical props and sets. The above-noted animation techniques, variably theorized by Julie Turnock, Kristen Whissel, and others, sit comfortably within the realm of photorealism, a visual aesthetic and epistemological regime that limits the full potential of animation. In other words, animation, as such, presents playful imitations of the real world. Likewise, this popularized application of animation technology eschews conceptions of its longer history, which, for Johnston, begins in the 1900s and finds moments of experimentation during midcentury modernity. Johnston’s project has one primary goal: expanding our conceptions of animation to include its myriad aesthetic, experimental, and technological histories. 

In this way, Johnston resituates animation as vital—vital here used purposefully to signal the pulses of Johnston’s title and his invocation of new materialism—and thus promises a new cultural and technological identity for the genre. He reminds us of non-photorealistic animation, such as the abstract spirals from John Whitney and Saul Bass in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) or Douglas Trumball’s Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1960). Instead of upholding the aesthetic dictates of photorealism, these sequences call forth animation’s “manipulations of sensory thresholds,” which require an embodied viewer to perceive “a number of mechanisms working together to generate projections and movements not normally available to the eye…” (13). Abstractions, in other words, render the invisible visible in creative ways. Whether the scratches of Len Lye or lights of lumia (both discussed below), abstractions produce affective and interactive relationships between spectator and media objects. As such, we are thinking of abstractions as intimately connected with our sensory experience rather than as detached ephemera also proves crucial for our contemporary moment. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many have learned to feel, socialize, and work through technological mediation; to interact, we must first face the abstractions of computer code. To this end, Johnston enlivens the “pulses” of analog and digital media alike, critiquing prior accounts of animation’s aesthetic and technological history as stifling and lacking both the sense of “wonder” and “enchantment” animation itself promises to generate (1). 

For Johnston, animation is “an epistemic practice” that continually “returns to the technical exploration of movement,” or the abstracted movement of animated images across various technologies like “celluloid, Technicolor, oscilloscopes, color organs, scratching, optical printing, raster graphics, and Flash animation programs” (3). These technologies and the images they produce are of no small consequence. Johnston contends that animation actively forms and re-forms our conceptions of humanity and the nonhuman even as they exist outside the body. Because animation crosses the boundaries of these individual technologies, Johnston situates it as a “relational form” that forge shifting media ecologies in “constant state[s] of redefinition” (3). Animation is a “technical assemblage” that changes as the larger “epistemological landscapes” of the dominant order of things ebb and flow. In other words, Johnston frames the aesthetic as what mediates between the networked world of media and the real world of humans and nonhumans—an exciting proposition. He writes, “The life of animation is not simply bound to its moving images, but also to its technical changes, which contain a vitality that produces actions” (15). From the outset, his foregrounding of epistemology re-invigorates the aesthetic (represented by animation) as a mode of learning. Animation’s abstract sensory environments grant intelligibility to what otherwise might remain invisible, particularly the visual and bodily sensations of movement. 

Rather than providing one grand, linear history of animation, Johnston provides a series of vignettes of different innovators, such as John Whitney, Sr. This approach is admittedly refreshing for academic writing. Johnston’s break from writing a linear history of animation enables him to similarly model the pulsations of animation for which he argues. Paraphrasing Alfred North Whitehead in his first chapter, Johnston describes matter as that which generates “pulses of emotion” to “produce forms of relative unity” (29). I find this moment, itself somewhat fleeting, to be self-reflexive and self-implicating for Johnston. Sometimes, Johnston narrates a continuity between his vignetted figures, such as both John Whitney, Sr. and Robert Breer in chapter four or Whitney and Charles Csuri in chapter five. More often, however, Johnston’s figures of animation, those vignettes animating the pulses of his book, exist in a discontinuous historical milieu. For example, chapter one’s Len Lye holds no relationship to chapter two’s Thomas Wilfred. Yet, Johnston juxtaposes the two figures and others in his own assemblage to open up his narrative for the reader. In this way, his audience is also invited to draw their own aesthetic and thematic relationships between Johnston’s figures, further evidencing how this “constant state of redefinition,” to borrow Johnston’s phrase, embodies the very vitality of the medium under scrutiny. Johnston expands prevailing conceptions of abstraction and animation with plentiful nuance. 

Given his primary concern with animation’s relationship with technological history, Johnston’s first chapter, “Line: Signatures of Motion,” begins in an unexpected place: investigating analog film stock and its manual manipulations by Len Lye. With close readings of Lye’s scratchwork films and appraisals of his documented writings on animation, Johnston displays a remarkably careful analysis of art and animation theory. In addition, by juxtaposing Lye’s works with that of the theorists Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, and Rosalind Krauss, he also draws useful comparisons between art criticism and animation history. By the 1950s, Lye transitioned from experiments with color and sensations of motion to physically scratching different forms into 16mm film stock. For Johnston, as for Lye, these experimental scratch films expose the “energy and sensation associated with movement” and “open spectators to a new understanding of motion and how it is sensed by the body” (26). One wonders if these films provide a different sensory experience than traditional drawn animation, an assertion Johnston does not quite venture to make himself. As “expressions of vitalistic energy,” Lye’s work opens up an opportunity to explore “how the body sensually engages with different materials” with animation seen as “a workshop and playground of materialist phenomenology” (29, 31). Lye conveys gestural marks of his own bodily presence and movements to the spectator through his scratch films, thus “producing physiological sensations for viewers through effects of abstract patterns or fantastical metamorphoses instead of realistic worlds” (43). At the same time, Johnston argues Lye’s marks also maintain an autonomy of their own separate from the artist’s gesturing hand/body. 

His second chapter, “Color: The Prometheans,” moves from Lye towards Thomas Wilfred’s experiments with light, lumia, and the communal artist’s society. Led by Wilfred, The Prometheans explored the emotional expressiveness of patterns of abstract light, working out of a laboratory on the estate of William Kirkpatrick Brice, though their legacy is now relatively obscure (64). Instead, lumia sustained a lasting impact on abstract animation and cinema history. Frustratingly, for the reader, Johnston does not provide a clear definition of lumia, but he does better in describing its aspirations and effects. As Johnston explains, Wilfred bypassed the imperfections of film stock, which flickers when run through a projector and is therefore unstable, with lumia. In contrast, lumia uses different light technologies to reassess the seamlessly flowing temporal and technological aesthetics of light, color, and motion: “lumia were not simply projections of how the cosmic realm might seem, but visualizations of forces or intensities that serve as the basis for sensations in and around the body” (69). For Johnston, Wilfred expanded the spectatorial sensorium to a point philosophers and scientists alike claimed existed “beyond perceptual borders” by “coupling color and motion” (67). In doing so, lumia promised “an absolute continuity of motion” that did not risk revealing the spectacle’s apparatus and instead immersed spectators into wondrous and sensational experiences in new ways. 

Turning to collage filmmaker Robert Breer in chapter three, Johnston explores “disintegrated animation,” an aesthetic in which “the perceptual limits that are usually utilized to generate a fluid image of movement are exposed by ruptures in continuity through either the juxtaposition of discrete images in cinematic temporal progression or a play with technologies of viewing” (102). Forged through Breer’s collage films, this discontinuous aesthetic disrupts “habitual modes of perception” as it catches the viewer’s eye (102). In a seemingly endless film strip, Breer exposes each frame of a six-foot ream of 16mm film stock in different ways and loops its ends together. He then juxtaposes in rapid montage clips from advertisements, newspapers, and drawings. At one point, Johnston likens Breer’s collage style to the montage editing of Soviet filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. The latter filmmakers, of course, conceived cinema as a vehicle for sociopolitical agitation and change through aesthetic conflict. However, Johnston falls short of making similar claims about Breer’s projects. Instead, for Johnston, Breer’s disintegrated aesthetic flaunts the intervallic space between a film’s frames, the space between its images’ illusory motion. As Johnston argues, by instituting this conflict via visual perception, Breer’s films “address the interval itself, working through formal relations and dimensions particularly to the materiality of celluloid in order to produce gaps of recreation whose opacity is paradoxically articulated through its genesis during projection” (103). 

Strikingly, chapter four, “Projection: Algorithms of Light,” shifts away from filmmakers interested in exploiting subjective sensory experiences and toward objectivity and quantification. Specifically, Johnston discusses animator Mary Ellen Bute, her invention of the cathode ray tube oscilloscope at Bell Telephone Laboratory, “expanded cinema,” and the Absolute Film movement (142). Curiously, Johnston largely neglects to develop how Bute fits into or differs from the Absolute Film movement. Bute’s own expanded cinema paid close attention to the balance and interactions of light, form, and sound as they engender active, albeit abstract, spatial relationships (142). For Johnston, her aesthetic focus begs “larger epistemological questions surrounding the relationships between technics and the senses” and “experiential form” (145, 146). That is, by Johnston’s description, she was less interested in engaging spectators in sensational experiences and more interested in quantifying human sensory processes using new media technologies. As such, Bute’s project was as mathematical as it was aesthetic. Working within expanded cinema, Bute employed mathematical methods to model spectators’ perceptual registers, thereby abstracting (and perhaps extracting) sensory data from the body. Indeed, Bute’s experiments in aesthetics of light, form, and sound give intelligibility to “cybernetic perceptual models” through a kind of visual music created by the oscilloscope (147). Yet, these experiments, Johnston contends, were more about removing sensory data from their “material contexts” (read: the body) and transmitting them across light projection technologies through the cathode-ray tube (147). Johnston correctly, albeit loosely, describes this mode of information extraction and transfer as paradigmatic. One wonders if, in future analyses of Bute’s work, we might read it more closely with our technological moment of data extraction in mind. 

Moving into chapter five, “Code: Models of Time,” Johnston continues his focus on new media technologies, explored here through Charles Csuri (a pioneer of digital art), John Whitney, Sr. (a father of computer animation), and others. Like his vignette of Bute in chapter four, Johnston’s narrativization of digital animation is equally concerned with the epistemological interdependence of digital art and science and technology in the 1960s and 70s. In explicating this history, Johnston aims to unpack the epistemological changes of the period often tied to film and media technologies. Unfortunately, his thesis for this chapter remains somewhat vague, a consistent shortcoming throughout the book as Johnston often subordinates his argument for the work of others. Still, he attempts to reconcile the binary oppositions of analog/digital and indexical/non-indexical rooted in “screen essentialism” and “medial ideology” (Nick Montfort and Matthew Kirschenbaum, respectively) with success. The former refers to a devout focus on digital image production, while the latter refers to both an overemphasis of digital representational forms and a lack of attention to technological materials. Mediating between the two, Johnston proposes a reconsideration of “digital materiality” through the interactions between computer hard- and software made intelligible to observers by the act of (new media) animation. 

Finally, in his conclusion, Johnston provides a brief narrative of Lewis Klahr, whose films engage in a kind of “re-animation,” Klahr’s term for bringing work by past media creators back to life (214). Klahr resuscitates the work of Breer and Andy Warhol to “re-animate the history of animation” and “force us to engage with the charming sorcery of these objects and cinema’s capacity to enlarge their worlds while simultaneously resuscitating their life” (213). Similarly, Johnston asserts his book also participates in re-animation “by connecting the dots, or pulses, among films and filmmakers within animation’s technical syntheses” (216). Animation, for Johnston, reactivates moving-image history in a “recursive synthesis” of flexible forms and is dependent on its mediating technologies (216). At the close of his book, Johnston’s poeticism thus issues an implicit challenge to cinema and media scholars interested in animation: we must remember that animation’s history moves and pulses like the very objects under study. 

There is quite a bit worth celebrating here. Writing in a more poetic style enriches his academic writing with its own vitality, a “pulse” so often missing in scholarly work. Moreover, I certainly agree with Johnston’s call that we must historicize our chosen texts, which has animated the work of cultural studies and the New Historicism for some time. (Though Johnston does not explicitly cite either cultural studies or the New Historicism as his chosen schools of thought.) Still, the implication is in the text: as scholars, it is imperative to situate our work within the relevant historical contexts as we unpack the different, sometimes competing, layers of meaning. That is, in reading film and media texts, we must simultaneously look backward in history and forward beyond our contemporary moment as we critically trace their multilinear trajectories through history. After all, meaning, as Johnston demonstrates, is neither fleeting nor stagnant—it is complex, persistent, and vital

Given its expansive scope, Pulses of Abstraction requires some familiarity with more established voices in animation discourse already, especially the work of Tom Gunning (Johnston’s former advisor) and Julie Turnock. However, if there is a significant criticism of Johnston’s text, it is two-fold: 1) Johnston’s argument is less present than those of other scholars, and 2) his theoretical approach limits his book to biography and media history. While Johnston adds some crucial voices to the contemporary discourse on animation, his book is admittedly hindered by its translation from one genre to the next. (As mentioned earlier, Pulses of Abstraction was formerly Johnston’s dissertation project.) On the one hand, I appreciate the wealth of animation history Johnston provides. For those looking for a text that provides a strong historical overview and approachable academic argumentation to use in undergraduate and graduate courses, Pulses of Abstraction has a lot to offer. On the other hand, because Johnston privileges the work of those before him—clearly demonstrating his due diligence, I recognize—his argument seems to fall flat in comparison and comes through in drips and drabs as he explains the existing research. As a reader, I found myself desiring more moments in which Johnston developed his ideas about animation and its technological and institutional contexts. I found discussions of animation’s political implications to be lost. This is especially true considering the promising foundation for film and media epistemology in the book’s introduction. If Johnston’s implicit call is for more historicization in media studies, thereby affirming the credo of New Historicism, then Johnston’s own attempt reads one-dimensionally in this respect. 

Furthermore, I wonder at Johnston’s theoretical approach to animation. His work follows the tropes of media archaeology and adds voices from new materialism. Given his aesthetic concerns with abstraction, Johnston’s invocation of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory and Jane Bennett’s “vital materialism” feel almost unnecessary. Additionally, considering our media-saturated age of datafication and digitalization, one wonders if this meeting of media archaeology and new materialism can appropriately approach the increasingly new roles aesthetics and technology play in our lives. If aesthetic experience is wrapped up in technological networks and “formal compositions,” as Johnston writes, then surely these modes of abstraction matter to our social settings in some capacity (226). Johnston does not seem to suggest explicitly how his new understanding of animation technologies from a new materialist perspective can alter our relationships with old and new media. This omission is even more surprising when considering Johnston’s rather unproblematic discussion of John Whitney, Sr., in chapter four. Johnston is right to draw this historical line since many early Hollywood animations alone can be attributed to the Whitney family name, including Hitchcock’s Vertigo mentioned above. 

That said, the implications of this broader history, such as animation’s irreconcilable associations with the military-industrial complex, might very well sit outside the scope of Johnston’s arguments. Because of that, we might say the book’s pulse, for all its exciting moments, fades all too quickly. However, I maintain that Pulses of Abstraction stands as a productive resource for animation scholars seeking to recover technology’s creative potential through animation’s under-discussed technological history. In our current mediasphere, we are left without much choice in generating our own user data—essentially abstractions of ourselves and ones definitively without a pulse—to be bought and sold for advertising revenue, also without our consent. Despite this, Johnston reminds us of our phenomenological relationships with technologies and their abstractions. Perhaps the book’s pulses, then, are not just its content. Rather, it finds the most productive movements in its forward propulsions guided by its backward looks towards animation’s past.

Posted in Volume 13, Issue 2