Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect – reviewed by Dr Andra le Roux-Kemp

‘Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect’ by Mel Y. Chen (Duke University Press, 2012). 

animaciesWhat does U.S. Senator George Allen’s 2006 re-election campaign, turtle eggs and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 have in common? Or how about the dehumanising effect of disability discourse and ‘The Estrangement of Labour’ by Karl Marx? More important, what is the relevance of animacy to all of this?

Animacy (and inanimacy) generally refers to those characteristics that distinguish living entities from non-living entities. This animate-inanimate distinction is not only fundamental to our cognition, but also forms the basis for our understanding of the world around us. Furthermore, Jakub Szewcyk and Herbert Schriefers suggest that the distinction between animate and inanimate is not only one of the first categorisations that humans are able to make, but also one of the last distinctions being lost in pathological states (Szewczyk & Schriefers 2011:208).

Mel Y. Chen’s Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect challenges our conventional divisions between the animate and inanimate. She not only builds on existing linguistic theory in which animacy plays a prominent role. (Because it is in language, after all, that basic categories of human cognition, including the animacy-inanimacy distinction, are expressed.)  But she also takes us on a whirlwind tour of biopolitics in which she highlights the complexity of ongoing debates about sexuality, race, environment and affect, all the while playing on the linguistic recognition of the liveliness or sentient nature of the referent of a noun.

Chen’s monograph – which is included in Duke University Press’s interdisciplinary Perverse Modernities series – consists of an introduction, an afterword and three parts, each containing two chapters. In each part Chen considers a particular feature of animacy: Part I is entitled ‘Words’ and explores language and figural dehumanisation; ‘Animals’ is Part II and focuses on queer animals and animality; and finally Part III, entitled ‘Metals’, explores the animacy of toxic metal particles specifically lead and mercury.

The transdisciplinary methodology utilised is the true hallmark and achievement of this publication and allows Chen to exploit and produce multiple layers of meaning. For example, in Part I Chen explores the animacy hierarchy of language that embodies all social, cultural and political life. She uses the infamous ‘macaca’ utterance of U.S. Senator George Allen’s 2006 re-election campaign to show how an insult can function both as a de-animation, as well as a re-animation when the social label or insult is reclaimed in a move towards political agency (Chapter 1). By focusing specifically on queer politics Chen furthermore illustrates the conceptual slipperiness of animacy in language and how it flutters away, even from the proper grasp of linguists (p. 9, see also Chapter 2).

Chen’s commitment to queer of colour, feminist, and disability scholarship is further demonstrated in part II of the monograph. Here Chen explores queer animality through the lens of selected visual media from the turn of the twentieth century. In Chapter 3, for example, the Fu Manchu films of the 1920s and 1960s are analysed to show how animality sometimes ‘bleeds back onto textures of humanness’ (p.89). And in Chapter 4 the provocative art of Xu Bing, particularly his ‘Cultural Animal’ performance of 1993-1994, is considered to ‘analyse and diagnose the cross-discursive connections [that exist] between animals and humans’ (p. 155).

Her use of the Foucauldian concept of biopower at both the level of the government and at the level of individual (human) subjects adds another layer of complexity to this labyrinth of animacy (Chapters 3 and 5). The transnational encounters between China and the United States, for example, stand central to her work and she follows the connectivities that animate before her, ‘without a fore-given attachment to a “proper” or “consistent” object’; from conditions of bodily and mental life, to bio-security studies relating to national obsessions of terrorism, ingestion, transmission and infection (p. 17).

Particularly interesting is her analysis of the newspaper articles and popular media accounts of the backlash against Chinese immigration in the USA in the late nineteenth century and the ‘lead panic’ of 2007 (Chapters 3 and 5).  A close analysis of these materials show how ‘the Chinese representation has been graphically rendered as animal-like’ (p. 108) and how animality can attach to groups and specific races within particular contexts (p. 115). The ‘lead panic’ that swept across the USA in 2007 is another case in point as the mass media presented the lead toxicity of Chinese manufactured painted and plastic toys as an invasive danger to the U.S. territory, an animate contaminant or terror intended to harm and destroy (p. 165-167).

By using animacy as a central construct, and by ‘step[ping] out of and around disciplinary closures’ (p. 18) Chen is able to theorise questions about biopolitics, queer and race across a breadth of disciplinary engagement. She argues that while inanimate objects, like lead or mercury, occupy a scalar position (near zero) on the animacy hierarchy, inanimate objects should not be treated as the binary opposite of animacy as these objects still hold a multiplicity of meanings and are shaped by the biopolitical reality of our times.

The text comes full circle in the final chapter of Part III where Chen offers a personal narrative and a ‘pointedly intimate invocation to rethink animacy’ (p. 18). She already hinted to her own ‘disability’ brought about by the toxicity of chronic illness in the introduction to the book ‘Animating Animacy’, and it is in the final chapter and the afterword that she allows the reader a glimpse of her personal animacies. It is here that animacy is used to imply the most basic or minimal of all affective conditions; that of being (p. 11). Yet, while this monograph was (arguably) born from Chen’s personal experiences with the animate and inanimate, she keeps her ‘columns neatly divided and [her] rows suggestively linked’ in the theory and transdisciplinary methodology of her scholarly labour (p. 38).

This book will be of interest to scholars working in the fields of linguistics, queer studies and disability studies, as well as those interested in transdisciplinary methodology and complexity theory. Don’t expect Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect to elucidate, simplify and enlighten; in fact, that was never Chen’s goal. Be prepared to stand mystified, impugned and intrigued by the animacies revealed.

Reviewed by Dr Andra le Roux-Kemp, part-time lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Stellenbosch University (South Africa) and an ema2sa scholar at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universiät Berlin (Germany). Andra works on the interstices that exist between the law and other disciplines, specifically the medical sciences, medical anthropology and bioethics, and her current research project explores the moral economies of Universal Health Coverage in South Africa and Ghana.  Correspondence to Dr Andra le Roux-Kemp.


Szewczyk, M. Jakub and Schriefers, Herbert. ‘Is animacy special? ERP correlates of semantic violations and animacy violations in sentence processing’ Brain Research (2011) Vol. 1368, 208-221.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.