Toys and their Symbolic Significance: "Have we always been Post-human?"
“Lunchtime was fast approaching at the nursery so I was about to gather my stuff and head back home when my attention was arrested by the sound of scattered, busy trotting. Following the sound I arrived at a tabletop, populated by a raft of Schleich® manufactured animal figurines. These miniature creatures were categorised into different, identifiable families. Human-child-hands-animal-figurine trot-trot-trotting towards an enclosure - a tray inlaid with pretend grass. Each animal family comprised: adult male, an adult female and a sexless animal-child. There were families of pigs, sheep, goats and cows. The trotting continued even as the human-child attempted to keep the different families together with a pink pipe cleaner. Not all the animals could fit under the length of the pink pipe cleaner, so three of the animals (the buck, the lamb and the kid) were made to trot ahead one by one to the tray, while others follow under the length of the pink pipe cleaner. The heteronormative, nuclear family herded dutifully to domesticated safety.”
Jayne Osgood and Sid Mohandas quote the aforementioned passage in their article (‘Figuring Gender in Early Childhood with Animal Figurines: Pursuing Tentacular Stories about Global Childhoods in the Anthropocene’) to emphasize the imbibed ideas of gender which subconsciously influence play in early childhoods. Toys, as instruments for such play, reinforce dualistic ideas through children’s play and hence become vessels for anthropocentrism. The often-contradictory narratives of the Anthropocene overlap in the space of the playroom, manifested through figures and playthings – however, the very notion of the Anthropocene can be critiqued here through Audra Mitchell’s belief that the term contributes to the problems which it seeks to highlight and solve. This is evident in its etymological coinage – by relegating a geological era as one solely impacted by human beings, it implicitly raises the role of human agency to an absurdly high degree. Such agency might be necessary to account for even in a post-human framework but large tracts of land and the ecosystem had been impacted by the actions of creatures beyond humans since time immemorial.
The stages of play are often linked with increasing levels of cognition, but gone are the days when the very domain of play was regarded as a privileged space reserved for Homo sapiens. In fact, pretend play has been observed in several non-human primates, as is exemplified by this video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ofJAlBegzcE
The aforementioned way is not the only one in which toys or the concept of play challenges inherent anthropocentric biases. Through increasingly creative uses which deconstruct absolute human hierarchy via new materialism and Object-Oriented Ontology, they transcend beyond simple markers of the Anthropocene. Here, through the use of case studies as well as through my own work that can be found at https://www.instagram.com/dinotoy.comics/ and an analysis of the same (https://www.thespace.gallery/post/a-post-human-gaze-into-figure-photography) I hope to show how toys become post-human symbols, mostly through the act of play. Through an increasing shift to more ecologically sustainable materials, such toys consciously attempt to undo certain human errors in our environment. Furthermore, by acting as unique sites of resistance that subtly undermine dominant discourses of power, the playroom can also subconsciously put forth its unique stance on the question that Professor Francesca Ferrando raises (Philosophical Posthumanism): Have we always been post-human? Ap[art from the instances mentioned below, I have attempted to negotiate the eco-critical significance of toys on their environment at https://www.thespace.gallery/post/toys-animals-and-nature-an-eco-critical-gaze-into-the-world-of-play
An Imaginative Space: The Lego Movie and Toy Story
Despite the use of toys being specifically marketed for certain ages as mentioned here, children’s plays often possess a unique subversive element. In ‘Entangling Childhoods, Materials, Curriculum and Objects’, K. Malone et al delve into the post-human potential of children’s play, whose “influences on shaping childhoods arise in its attempts to resist dominant colonizing or neoliberal practices, both in the non-prescriptive nature of its framework, that creates opportunities for various interpretations and responses to the economic and political contexts and in its grounding in bicultural philosophies.” As such, through a survey conducted on a certain sample size of students and teachers in a pedagogical framework, where “teachers — adults — feel compelled to create an environment in early years centres where children are continuously watched and observed, regulated and pushed to obey the governing ideologies and to develop mechanisms for self-governance.” Such a desire enacts on a microcosmic level, the hegemonic aspects of ordered “humanist” societies in regulating the multi-faceted dynamicity of play and free thought. Here we arrive at The Lego Movie, which, despite its creation for an inherently capitalist desire to propagate sales, espouses a post-human philosophy on several levels. In a Lego universe that is populated by anthropomorphic toys, order is pitted against chaos and the protagonist is a builder named Emmit who emerges as the chosen one who faces down evil – a fact that neither not nor his comrades – Master Builders of exceptional talent – are able to believe.
In a slight subversion of the hero’s journey, an ordinary man whose strength lies in engaging in collaborative building rather than being a simple Master Builder is brought out to be a hero. Such collaboration embraces a post-human multiplicity – a form of pluralistic monism – that is privileged over the overwhelming power of a single individual. Furthermore, the entire film is brought out to be a narrative constructed through play by a young boy who sneaks into his father’s basement to mix and match his Lego sets, comprised of a variety of figures based on different characters from different aspects of popular culture. The villain, Lord Business is actually revealed to be the boy’s father who uses the ‘Kragle’, a form of Crazy Glue that fixes the Lego figures in place. Playability is restricted in a world of ordered sets – such a scenario echoes an oft-seen dilemma of adult collectors who spend several thousand dollars on building blocks and place them in ordered structures, without allowing the possibility of creative interplay beyond the prescribed sets.
From forbidding his son to play with his figures, to joining him in the same, the film embraces a post-human desire to resist and subvert existing dynamics of power. This brings to mind a similar theme in our own world (‘Entangling Childhoods, Materials, Curriculum and Objects’) where children subtly find a way to resist the surveillance of their teachers:
“Throughout this project, teachers started to observe that some images that children shared with adults featured various “objects” and “materialities” that teachers did not recognise and that were not resources from the centre. These objects in photographs appeared in children’s hands, rested in children’s open palms for another child to take a photo of. Teachers became puzzled, as similar photographs—of foreign objects in children’s hands—appeared in photographs almost daily. This experience was repeated over a period of a couple of weeks: one child taking a photograph of another child’s hand, holding a foreign, unknown object. The objects—a plastic toy, a damaged small doll—led to vivid discussions among teachers. The adults could not understand what those materialities and objects were, why they were important to children or why children would build such a relationship with these objects. Teachers observed that children clearly had visibly strong relationships with these objects that the teachers had never seen. The teachers felt that they had lost control over the children and the centre. Suddenly, the teachers realized that they did not have such perfect visibility or oversight of the children’s actions and development, and of what children were doing or playing with, as they had expected.”
Such a scenario led to the rethinking of power differentials, which often left the teachers feel “threatened”. These creative attempts to build, play with, and assign names to one’s playthings, can be likened to an anthropocentric desire to possess but also tie in with a post-human desire of challenging existing boundaries and orders. This is perhaps also located in Toy Story 4, where the creation of a toy from a discarded spork leads to absurd dialogues regarding said entity’s identity (“toy” or “trash”) and direct the flow of the film throughout. Such an idea ties in with post-human notions of continuity and relationality, but that is a blog for another time.
Digivices and Tamagotchi
The 90s were a unique time to be a kid, in no small part due to the various innovations in the toy industry. One of these toys which merged the toy, the pet and the handheld device into a single object was the Tamagotchi, released by Bandai in 1996. The concept of this device revolved around a handheld digital device that would hatch a creature inside – a creature the owner-child would have to rear, evolve, bathe and pet over time. The innovative design of the device was a step further from the interactive dolls but in a digital space and would go on to spawn the anime franchise Digimon, which made use of a similar theme by featuring children trapped in a digital world with their digital monsters, who would go on to become stronger as the bond between child and animal evolved.
Digimon remains memorable, not only in its unique story-telling but also in the highlighted themes, especially in the third season Digimon Tamers, where one of the protagonists undergoes a moral dilemma – when he realizes that the digital life forms in his computer are more than simulations, after having waged virtual wars with his army of Digimon in-game. Such a dilemma invokes a pacifist dimension in the child, Henry, which is distinctly post-human on different layers. Firstly, the creatures in the portrayed digital world are deemed to be living in their own right. Secondly, the very act of watching the animated figures on-screen while watching an episode of Digimon evokes other layers of possible existences – that of the characters on screen, and us, who watch it.
Source: https://digimon.fandom.com/es/wiki/Jianliang_Lee; Henry and Terriermon
Firstly, it challenges expected notions of sentio-centrism and the very concept of life being organic. The dilemma about other kinds of life has given rise to different debates regarding but is not limited to, extra-terrestrial lives of the Xenocene and silicon-based life forms. The field of computer science dubbed ‘Artificial Life’ is making strides in the direction of the same, and Ursula K Heise (‘From Extinction to Electronics: Dead Frogs, Live Dinosaurs, and Electric Sheep’) speaks about one such project:
“Thomas Ray's Tierra (Spanish for "earth"), hints by its very name at its objective of creating a computer-based equivalent of species evolution and biodiversity; moreover, Ray explicitly links it to biological preservation projects in Costa Rica-the country that already figured in the background of Spielberg's imaginary species resurrection. Tierra, however, forges a different type of link between contemporary species loss and the creation of artificial animal life.”
Philosophical posthumanism, as formulated by Dr Francesca Ferrando, situates the representation and the represented on an equivalent plan to thereby demolish a Platonic hierarchy of ideas and objects, while also deeming the representation as being its own form of existence in its own right. Thomas Ray echoes such an ideological strain, deeming Tierra and it’s like to a form of synthetic biology which studies possible ways in which life can evolve, as opposed to analytical biology that studies existing organic forms. “What this implies is that the self-replicating and evolving strings of computer code they design not only model forms and processes of "natural" biological life, but indeed constitute a life-form of their own, silicon- rather than carbon-based”.
Ray’s Tierra seems to echo, on a much more scientific level, the dilemma of Digimon Tamers and the Tamagotchi Virtual Pets. Tamagotchi creatures are said to “die” if they are not adequately taken care of, which may simply be a programming gimmick but, as in Digimon, also emerge as something beyond. Such interactive toys invoke the notion of creatures and/or entities that exist in different spaces and resist the dualistic classification of “living” and “non-living”.
Portal-based Games: Disney Infinity and Skylanders
We looked at entities existing in a digital space, as well as what we call the plane of reality. However, the very existence of Portal-based games challenges this existence of well-marked boundaries in a truly post-human fashion. Games such as Skylanders and Disney Infinity makes use of toys with special bar-codes on their bottoms, which, placed on a portal, makes the character come alive in a fictional universe in-game
Source: https://www.marinobambinos.com/2015/06/skylanders-superchargers-introduces-land-sea-and-air-vehicles/; Skylanders figure
Source: https://www.ign.com/articles/2013/10/13/skylanders-swap-force-3ds-review; Character in-universe
The very characters are fictional but their existence in different universes echo Thomas Ray’s desire to conjoin the material and the immaterial, the embodied and the disembodied.
Plush Toys and Pet Robots: ‘Animals’ without Commitment
The massive rise in the number of interactive toys in the market may offer a transhumanist way of life combined with popular grim-dark fantasies about AI takeovers. However, going beyond such an anti-humanist and technophobic stance can enable an insight into the cognitive functions which such robots help develop. In such a manner, the child – wearing spectacles, using a toy telephone and playing with robotic dogs through means of voice commands – becomes a form of cyborg.
I have personally experienced that sleeping with stuffed animals encourages a more relaxed sleep cycle and increased serotonin levels, perhaps owing to the softness of the pelt and the comforting mental simulation of a companion animal that is produced. Such robotic pets and plushies are deemed to be replacements or alternatives to the actual animals, which might be too much of a commitment to handle. These replacements may have once been deemed inferior, but emerging discourses – based upon post-sentiocentrism and post-dualism – would argue that they are different in form rather than degree of importance. Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? delves into this very debate regarding the human and android’s attitudes to animals, both real and mechanical – a post-dualistic world view can, therefore, in the words of Doctor Ferrando, prevent the creation of new hierarchies and stereotypes in a new world of ethics.
‘Animal’ Toys and Merchandise
Did you know that your dogs can have their own chew toys, manufactured specifically for them?
Perhaps you are tired of your cat scratching your furniture and need a suitable alternative.
There are pet stores that sell such merchandise. Even you can find a way to merge your love for your fandom with your love for your pet, in one adorable image.
The increasing number of couples adopting pets instead of having their child is becoming a common feature in several households. The lack of desire to bring another human being into the world is something I myself have come across in my interactions with people – who have chosen to remain anonymous – people who have instead decided to shower their love on an animal of a different species. Pets form the focal point of Donna Haraway’s important discussion pertaining to companion species. They are privileged subalterns, the treatment of whom often raise important debates regarding the luxurious lifestyles afforded to pets while human beings in some other corner of the world have been dehumanized and subjected to oppression. The desire to anthropomorphize pets and feature them in popular videos and vines is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon, leading to humanization – this human is a privileged marker afforded to an entity closer to the ‘Self’ than to the ‘Other’. As such, the former – “my” dog – is privileged with luxuries, while some member of the species Homo sapiens is denied of the same.
Such a distinction brought about by the above pictures is post-human, but perhaps not positively so, as it reinforces the dichotomy of the centre and the margin. There may be degrees of post-humanism that govern the world around us, both consciously and unconsciously, and it might be possible for us to regard the post-human as a negotiation with the idea of the human. According to Rosi Braidotti, the subject is a “transversal entity encompassing the human, our genetic neighbours the animals and the earth as a whole”. The existence and social function of toys as representations of virtual spaces, robots, human beings, animals and inanimate objects, as well as represented objects in their own right with a Latour-esque agentic capacity, place them. These toys exist in a liminal space that voices a desire to transcend anthropocentrism, while often falling back into these essentialisms as noted at https://www.thespace.gallery/post/toys-a-marker-of-the-anthropocene.
Toys, especially when viewed through the lens – pun intended – of toy photography, find a way to further challenge these essentialisms as I have tried to showcase through my work at https://www.instagram.com/dinotoy.comics/ and an analysis of it.