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Anime as (particularly interesting) thinking devices

Technology and its relationship with humanity have always been two of the most important
topics in anime. Astroboy, considered by most the first anime tv series, explored the life and
adventures of a humanoid robot, and since then, in the nearly 50-year history of anime, we have
seen all kinds of variations on the matter. As in other media, there seem to be two main ideals of
technology in science fiction anime: the humanoid robot, and the dehumanized machine or mere
tool . But in a sense, the role of technology in anime is far more complex than that: technology in
anime is neither something similar a to robot or to a tool. In my work, I defend the idea that
many anime can be considered what I call thinking devices: that means that they not only convey
representations of robots and machines through a technical medium, but they are also themselves
devices that think technology and other ideas with us.
Some animes appear as particularly difficult to interpret because we find in them
out-of-place scenes, dialogues, backgrounds and rhythms... elements which are difficult to
integrate in the narrative. These animes provoke us to engage in a kind of reflection that would
not be possible without them. A classic example of that is Neon Genesis Evangelion. Because of
its rupture with some of the conventions of the mecha genre and its general impenetrability, NGE
brought forth a massive amount of discussion and speculation dedicated to decipher its meaning,
especially on Internet forums,
We tend to believe that only humans are able to think, or at least to use some of the
higher forms of thinking, like reflection. But, its that really true? Many people would object that
some animals are capable of some kind of thinking, and some would even defend something
similar about plants. Only rarely we conceive other kinds of objects or processes as involved in
thinking, and when we do, tend to fall back to the two categories I mentioned before: tools that
act as an a mere aid for human thinking and full-fledged conscious robots with their own
human-like personality.
The notion of thinking devices that I use in my work is in part a play of words, but points
to a serious matter. It is supposed to mean both devices for thinking and devices that think. It
is something in the middle of the independent robot and the mere tool. One of the reasons why I

like to talk about thinking devices is because I believe thinking is a first and foremost a
complex relation between entities, and because sometimes deciding where to locate the agency
(who is doing the thinking) is not so simple.
We could think of a lot of systems as a thinking devices. A building, for example, could
be a thinking device because of the way it distributes space and the different kinds of information
that go through it, and because it structures the interactions that happen inside and outside itself.
Cultural products, and specially artistic products are particularly suitable to be interpreted as
thinking devices. They not only have the capacity to make agents and information systems
engage in mutual relationships, but they are also potentially critical, that is, they have the
capacity of modifying the ways we engage with the world in a significant way.

Most cultural products are traditionally interpreted as texts. The difference between the
idea of a text, traditionally understood as a vehicle for meaning, and that of a thinking device is
double. On the one hand the idea of text-as-vehicle makes the production of meaning something
that happens out of the text: the message is either something that exists before the text (maybe
in the mind of the author) or something that will come to exist later (in the mind of the reader or
viewer). When I talk about thinking devices, I refer to processes in which the production of
meaning is distributed and dynamical: meaning is something that happens during the interaction
between viewer and device, not a fixed message that is conveyed.
This is part of what makes anime (which I understand primarily, following Thomas
Lamarres analyses as a technology of moving pictures intended to involve the viewer
cognitively) a particularly good example of a thinking device. In anime consumption, the viewer
and the material engage in a joint process of sense-making. The agency of this process, the who
does it, is shared: the anime is not just a tool or prime matter, but an active part in the process.
Moreover, we find in certain anime (like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Revolutionary Girl
Utena or Puella Magi Madoka Magica, among others) a kind of play between narrative and
extra-narrative elements that is revealing as to the way in which an object can impose its rules
to thinking, adding to the user agency.
One of the most important features of narratives is that they must follow a certain order; a
narrative is necessarily divisible in moments or parts, and these parts must follow each other in a

particular way. In this sense, the parts of a narrative always constitute a closed set. But if we pay
close attention to the animes I have mentioned before, we can see many elements that escape this
narrative order, points of rupture that cannot fully be accounted for from a narrative perspective.
This points of rupture I call extra-narrative elements. Where the logic of the story itself works by
producing some form of closed temporality, those extra-narrative elements break this closure and
force the viewers to consider another type of temporality. One outstanding example of this is
what happens in chapters 25 and 26 of Neon Genesis Evangelion, where the linear story is
abandoned and the standard temporality of the narration completely put aside in favor of
something else: a critical attempt to think who is it that watches anime, and to make the viewers
Also, narratives are always something of the order of the complete individual, that is,
something always already interpreted up to a point. That does not mean, of course, that the
reading process cannot itself be an open process: any element may always receive a new and
different interpretation, and some of them may even be left uninterpreted. Properly speaking, the
elements of a narrative (such as an anime story) are not narrative or extra-narrative in and of
themselves: spectators are continuously knitting them into the narrative. However, the
presence of elements that resist interpretation is part of what makes a piece work as a thinking
device, giving it a particular form of criticality. Of course, this does not happen only in anime:
for instance, many real life films by authors such as David Lynch and David Cronenberg are full
with this kind of elements. However, anime has some particularities that, again, makes it a more
interesting example.
First of all, in anime and animation in general we are confronted with the characters
actions directly: there are voice actors, but none of the gestures or visual actions depend on a live
actor. This helps us get away from the standard relationship with characters in the performing
arts, in which the reasons and emotions conveyed are supposed to be connected in some way to
the subjectivity of the actor, even if she is faking them. In anime is the medium itself, in
relation with the viewer, what expresses something.
Secondly, one of the particularities of anime is that it relies heavily in repetition, in the
reproduction of certain conventions. Anime rarely lend themselves to be interpreted as

expressing mainly the interiority of a given author, and even when they do up to a point, it is
only through constant reference to the conventions of the anime itself. Even in the case of anime
which are sometimes considered innovative or game-changing, like Akira, NGE or Utena, their
potential for critical transformation relies in the stance they take towards a certain genre and in
the way they rethink its conventions. Through the repetition and alteration of conventions, the
spectator is able to interact not only with anime as an individual product but also with it as a
whole system.
I believe that studying the way in which certain anime invite us to engage in a particular
kind of reflection is not only new and interesting way to approach anime, and its relationship
with the viewer. It is also important because, in the end, anime is not only a tool for
entertainment, an object that we can passively observe, but also something that affects us and
alters our ways of thinking. Approaching anime as thinking devices can help us understand their
potential for critical thinking, as well as reconsider the whole relationship between anime and