Pixar's Class Problem

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


July 9, 2011

Pixar's Class Problem

In a blog post for the magazine Discover, Kyle Munkittrick is optimistic about the hidden messages in Pixar films – perhaps so optimistic as to border on pronoia. The cause of his optimism is that he reads the hidden message of Pixar films as “humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood.” The basic operation in the films is “strange entities become unmistakably familiar, so clearly akin to us,” and through this gesture, of embracing the nonhuman (implicitly including the transhuman) as also possessing personhood, we are preparing to recognize the rights of these Others.

Or rather, Pixar is preparing us. Munkittrick characterizes Pixar’s actions as “subliminal concepts being drilled into our collective mind.” I think the audience is not as clueless and passive as all that, but it struck me as odd that anyone would welcome cultural brainwashing. He writes, “Pixar has settled the personhood debate before it arrives,” which he somehow intended to be a good thing, despite it’s chilling connotations of censorship and suppression. This is an instance of a general tendency among posthuman, transhuman or otherwise pro-technology authors to be uncritically pro-capitalist, having seemingly adopted Cold War ideology that holds up capitalism as the best possible engine of technological progress.

This tendency is also present at the level of subculture: geeks have a remarkable tolerance and even enthusiasm for corporate branding and marketing efforts penetrating their subculture that is striking to someone accustomed to the norms of subcultures based around music. Trying to be charitable, I wondered if profit-seeking is not intrinsically distasteful to geeks because of the large capital investment in R&D that’s necessary for technological progress. But then technology R&D (and education) is often publicly-funded, a fact that’s often concealed by techno-capitalist discourses of heroic individualism.

Returning to Pixar motif of strange entities becoming familiar: isn’t this basically a domestication? Pixar’s non-human characters are always idealized, deprived of any traits that threaten or disturb the audience. The monsters in Monsters, Inc. aren’t truly monsters, they are ordinary people with jobs, just like us; the horrifying franken-toys in Toy Story turn out to be kind and helpful; and so on. The last example is especially interesting because of the contrast between the horrifying (but not really) franken-toys owned by the neighbor Sid against friendly, humanized Woody, Buzz Lightyear, etc. In many horror flim, the face of a toy becomes terrifying, not because of a dehumanizing distortion, but precisely as human. The smiling face becomes a uncanny, frozen grimace, drawing attention to the inhumanity inherent to humanity, the way they are two sides of the same coin. Pixar makes the opposite move, starting from horrifying Otherness and then showing the “truth” that it’s basically a misunderstanding.

This move is rooted in the traditional Judeo-Christian injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself, which Lacan problematizes in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. The problem is that by reducing the Other to a mirror-image of myself, I eliminate the Other as unfathomable, impenetrable and opaque. Lacan reads the injunction in a different way, explained here by Žižek:

For Lacan, who follows Freud here, this abyssal dimension of another human being - the abyss of the depth of another personality, its utter impenetrability - first found its full expression in Judaism with its injunction to love your neighbor as yourself. For Freud as well as for Lacan, this injunction is deeply problematic, since it obfuscates the fact that, beneath the neighbor as my mirror-image, the one who is like me, with whom I can empathize, there always lurks the unfathomable abyss of radical Otherness, of someone about whom I ultimately do not know anything - can I really rely on him? Who is he? How can I be sure that his words are not a mere pretence? In contrast to the New Age attitude which ultimately reduces my neighbors to my mirror-images or to the means on the path of my self-realization (as is the case in the Jungian psychology in which other persons around me are ultimately reduced to the externalizations-projections of the disavowed aspects of my own personality), Judaism opens up a tradition in which an alien traumatic kernel forever persists in my neighbor - the neighbor remains an inert, impenetrable, enigmatic presence that hystericizes me.

For Lacan, the injunction to love thy neighbor cannot be met by insisting that the Other appear to me only as a narcissistic projection of my own beliefs and desires. The flip side to loving all Others so long as they are just like me is intense hatred for the Other as not-me.

In Toy Story, the non-human Others are embraced by the upper-middle class target market precisely because they are amenable to a fantasy that “they are just like us.” The main antagonist of the movie is Sid, a boy whose family is coded with working class stereotypes: Sid’s mother feeds him pop-tarts instead of healthy food; the house is filled with trash; Sid’s pet is an aggressive pitbull; his father is shown passed out next to a pile of beer cans in a room decorated with a hunting trophy. The aesthetic contrast between Sid’s house and the house that the toys live in could not be stronger: the former is old and run down, the latter perfectly pristine and white. But even this is not enough, the toys’ family moves away from this neighborhood by the end of the movie, and the final scenes of the movie show their destination: a Norman Rockwell-esque idyllic country house covered in snow during Christmas.

Another element that’s present throughout the series is that the toys’ main concern is with being outgrown and discarded, while Woody constantly emphasizes how they are there for the child, not for their own enjoyment of being played with. This preoccupation is very close to the common situation where parents experience a great deal of gratification out of feeling needed by their children, but gradually their kids grow up, become more independent and stop needing them. The toys live a double life, as toys from the kid’s perspective, and only come alive as full subjects when the child is not there or asleep. Isn’t this basically a reference to the way that parents also live a double life - playing “Mom” or “Dad” in the child’s naive universe, and concealing their true identities as real adults with all the stresses and worries that parents don’t let their kids know about?

In Wall-E, we find a similar class dimension, where the villains are coded with working class stereotypes: the humans are fat, lazy, ignorant, wasteful and mostly shop at what can only be read as Walmart, in contrast to the cultivated upper middle class aesthetic appreciation of “quality” consumer goods that Wall-E shows towards his shrine of recovered objects. Pixar gets away with catering to class snobbery because the characters that express those ideas are non-human. They appear as outsiders and ignorant of class issues, so their opinions and beliefs seem more objective. But if you had human characters with those attitudes, it would be uncomfortably obvious that it’s elitism.

Munkittrick mentions something very close to this in a more recent blog post, where he says “non-humans allow a barrier of safety for our minds to explore controversial or previously unacceptable ideas,” in reference a short CGI film where humanoid robots are represented sympathetically as the working class. Putting this statement in the “wrong” context, it’s clear that the unacceptable ideas that Pixar allows us to think are elitism, bigotry and hatred of the poor.

With this in mind, the upper middle class use of tolerance in the context of liberal capitalism is rendered much more problematic. Respect for individual differences can be used to stigmatize anti-capitalist struggle as a form of intolerance of the superhumanly talented, a tendency that Pixar conveniently offers the best example. The Incredibles is a story of naturally gifted heroes whose superior position in society is threatened first by “big government” regulations, and then by a villainous radical egalitarian whose goal is to destroy hierarchical society by providing everyone with the technological means to become heroes themselves.