The Trouble With Toys: Walter Benjamin, Pixar and the Search For Redemption (Part I)

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July 20, 2010

Most people with a serious interest in the arts have at least run across the name of Walter Benjamin. And many are familiar with the historical argument he makes in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in which the ease of making copies in the modern world is said to diminish the aura of originals. But the place of this famous essay in relation to the rest of his work is largely misunderstood. Some take him for a defender of tradition, lamenting the rootlessness of industrial society. Others see him as a staunch advocate for technological progress, celebrating the freedom that comes with that rootlessness. The truth, however, is that Benjamin is both these things. And neither.

To be more precise, he was a thinker who saw the complexity of his own feelings mirrored in his surroundings. Movies excited him because they seemed to offer the clearest vision of what a post-capitalist existence might look like, a reality in which the price of access would be rendered irrelevant by universal accessibility, where an economy based on scarcity would yield to an economy based on boundless surplus. At the same time, he recognized – and with a prescience that should be the envy of today’s futurologists – that this brave new world could also divide human beings from everything that once gave their lives of meaning.

Benjamin’s overarching project, best articulated in his unfinished “passage-work,” the Arcades Project, was to find a way to discern meaning in the excess made possible by mass production. That’s why he spent so much time pondering the early years of our consumer society, when the proto-malls of mid-19th-century Paris displayed an unprecedented bounty behind the huge planes of glass that technological innovations had recently made feasible. And it’s also why he complemented that wide-ranging endeavor with reflections on his own experience of consumer society, concentrating on memories of his early years, when his innocence had endowed even the most mundane details with magic.

In the long-gestating culmination of this latter effort, Berlin Childhood Around 1900, Benjamin uses his youthful passion for butterfly hunting to muse on this capacity to enchant. “The air in which this butterfly once hovered is today wholly imbued with a word – one that has not reached my ears or crossed my lips for decades. This word has retained that unfathomable reserve which childhood names possess for the adult. Long-kept silence, long concealment has transfigured them.”

What Benjamin came to realize, as the experience of exile during the 1930s forced him to turn memories into sustenance, is that the only way to redeem something from the purgatory of plenitude is to focus on the singularity of its fate. No matter how many copies of a consumer item are in existence, each one has the potential to have a rich history that transforms it into an individual.

It is the discovery of such a history that excites the collector of mechanically reproduced goods. In his essay “Unpacking My Library”, Benjamin emphasizes that collectors have “a very mysterious relationship to ownership.” The collector doesn’t seek objects based on “their functional, utilitarian value – that is, their usefulness – but studies them as the scene, the stage, of their fate.”

In this respect, however, the collector is merely a pale reincarnation of the child who, free to play, is perpetually prying objects loose from their utilitarian purpose. “Children can accomplish the renewal of existence in a hundred unfailing ways. Among children, collecting is only one process of renewal; other processes are the painting of objects, the cutting out of figures, the application of decals – the whole range of childlike modes of acquisition, from touching things to giving them names.”

Given the impressive intellectual firepower at Pixar, not to mention the company’s San Francisco Bay Area home, it would not be surprising if members of its production team were familiar with Walter Benjamin’s work. Yet whether he was a conscious influence or not, there is no denying that the studio’s films have done a brilliant job of developing his favorite themes.

The Incredibles ponders the bondage of middle age, when resisting a utilitarian mindset can seem like an impossible task. Cars considers the problem of planned obsolescence and the uncanny feel of places that have been bypassed into irrelevance by the freeway system. The remarkable opening sequences of Wall-E, with their depiction of a post-apocalyptic Earth, conjure the figure of Benjamin’s angel of history, propelled backward into the future as the rubble of the past mounts before its eyes. But of all Pixar’s creations, it is the Toy Story franchise that calls his work most forcefully to mind.

From the trilogy’s 1995 debut, Pixar’s first feature-length picture, to this summer’s blockbuster Toy Story 3, the films have received nearly universal praise. That they have done so without ever becoming inaccessible to young people is a testament to the studio’s gift for tastefully balancing the conflicting demands of children’s and adult entertainment. Little kids leave the theater wanting a Woody or Buzz Lightyear toy for themselves; their parents leave with their faith in consumer goods restored.

That has always been the paradox of the Toy Story films, the fact that they offer critical commentary on consumer society even as they renew its appeal. The fact that Woody and Buzz, unlike sidekicks such as Mr. Potato Head and Barbie, did not even exist as toys until the first film had introduced them to audiences demonstrates that Pixar’s noble effort to call the pursuit of novelty into question can only go so far in an economy sustained by perpetual shopping. What the pictures do manage to pull off, however, is a redirection of desire towards the possessions one already has. Even if the demand to acquire new things is ultimately impossible to eradicate, at least under present circumstances, it can be countered by the demand to make old things new.

A point Benjamin makes about book collectors in “Unpacking My Library” proves illuminating here. “To renew the old world – that is the collector’s deepest desire when he is driven to acquire new things, and that is why a collector of older books is closer to the wellsprings of collecting than the acquirer of luxury editions.” This does not mean starting over from scratch. The collector can only achieve renewal by invoking history. “The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership – for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.”

Again and again in the Toy Story films, the protagonists are beset with anxiety that they will be detached from their histories, whether by being boxed up in the attic, imprisoned in a museum display or lost in the garbage. In Toy Story 2 Buzz Lightyear is confronted by a vast number of look-alike toys and then must come to terms with a double who lacks knowledge of off-the-shelf reality; in Toy Story 3 his memory is temporarily erased, turning him back into a copy without individuality. Were it not for the presence of Andy’s other toys to remind him of his past, he would literally lose his character.

The appeal of these pictures derives, in part, from the deftness with which it mobilizes fears that transcend age groups. Children are afraid of losing their favorite toys. Parents fear this as well. But adults also worry about losing touch with the past in which they had their own favorite toys. And everyone is afraid of being lost in some way, forgotten by loved ones with the passage of time.

What these anxieties suggest, returning to Benjamin, is that the collector who seeks to “renew the old world “ is also in search of self-renewal. This is not the sort of self-renewal imagined as starting over. From his perspective, reinforced by the experience of fascism’s rise, it seemed more difficult to sustain selfhood than to submit for reprogramming. Renewal didn’t mean being reset to “factory settings,” but preserving the experiences that had altered them. Indeed, as Buzz Lightyear’s fate in Toy Story 3 implies, losing touch with those experiences makes us more susceptible to totalitarian manipulation.


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