Toy Story 2 (1999)


By Jonathan Beller

The Silence of Alienated Toys

Hey kids, if you haven’t seen Toy Story 2, better hurry so that you can find out what your toys are doing when you’re not watching. And maybe you’ll learn to show your toys a little respect!

This film shrewdly brings forth two features of contemporary life which everyone suspects but no one seems to be able to prove: First, objects, despite their apparent inanimacy, have a secret life of their own and are going about their business, pursuing their own interests, and carrying on their own independent associations when we’re not looking. And second, social relations evolving organically through communal forms of play are more rewarding then those programmatically structured through commodity culture — it’s better to make up our own games and choose our own friends then to follow the dictates of marketers and corporations. If the Toy Story films are about anything, they are about the ethical inferiority of mass-produced fun to the fun of bricolage (assembling with what comes to hand) and creative play. At least that’s the idea promoted by Toy Story 2, along with its own mass marketers at Pixar and Disney.

The principle characters here are cowboy doll Woody (voice of Tom Hanks), space-age super hero Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), plastic dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn), super spuds Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Hamm, a talking piggy bank with a keen mind and excellent managerial skills (John Ratzenberger), and Slinky Dog (Jim Varney). This eclectic crew has been assembled by the youngster Andy (John Morris), and has grown during the course of enthusiastic if sometimes bruising play into a tightly knit community. When Woody is inadvertently sold at a garage sale to a money-grubbing toy merchant named Al (Wayne Knight), his comrades set out to rescue him. Unbeknownst to himself, Woody is part of a rare set of cowboy toys, and the missing piece long coveted by Al, in order that Al can sell the whole collection to a toy museum in Japan.

Woody’s discovery of his origins through the revelatory conversations he has with the other toys in his now extinct product line, tempt him to give up on his pressing desire to return home to his owner Andy. Like an ordinary man who has just discovered that he has been deprived of his birthright, Woody hopes to regain the celebrity status with which he was manufactured. He is further convinced to seek out his place in eternity by the heart-wrenching tale of his cowgirl cohort, Jessie (Joan Cusack), who relates how her owner Emily outgrew her (or rather, gave her up for nail polish and record players), such that Jessie finally ended up donated. The filmic sequence during which she recounts her love for Emily, the joy of sharing intimate play wither her, and her final, devastating obsolescence starts out saccharine but becomes truly beautiful in its kitschy truth regarding the inexorable passage of childhood. Horrified, Woody feels that his only chance at a future is to follow out free-market logic all the way to the museum.

Ironically, it is Buzz Lightyear, the technologically superior and boastful usurper of Toy Story 1, who convinces Woody of the error of his ways by repeating Woody’s own humanitarian dictum to him in the moment of rescue: “There is nothing more important in this world than being loved by a child.” This point is emphasized as Buzz has just emerged from an uncanny confrontation with his own origins.

In a direct allusion to the shot in The Bicycle Thief when Lamberto Maggiorano pawns his sheets and sees them placed upon a mountain of pawned sheets, Buzz sees replicas of himself stacked floor to ceiling. Face to face with an image of the overarching logic which has economically, culturally and socially overdetermined his identity, Buzz realizes how deluded he was to take all of his factory programming and commercial advertising at face value. Playing with Andy and living among Andy’s toys has denaturalized his mass-produced factory-issue personality, by making him aware of the social contrivances underlying the apparent immediacy of his character. We could all take a lesson here. The life he shares with the child Andy and his toys beyond the horizon of the toy-store and its financial calculus confers Buzz with new meaning. Out of the box and beyond the reach of the market, Buzz has a greater chance to break away from programmatic personality fragments, and to achieve self-realization and perhaps something akin to truth. Upon hearing another Buzz Lightyear, fresh out of the box, click open his wrist recorder and self-importantly bend down to dictate a mission log, Andy’s Buzz wonders aloud: “Was I so naive?”

Eventually Buzz and Woody understand the spiritual poverty of a market-generated identity mass produced for commodity culture. Though limited by their original design features and confronted with the threat of technological obsolescence, to say nothing of the unbridled maturation of their owner, they choose their unique situation and a chance to bring joy to a child over the destiny prescribed by the monetary value-system which assigns values to mere commodities and indeed characterizes their denizens, such as Al, who either think like commodities or in whom commodities think. As commodities, Buzz, Woody and the rest are merely frozen labor globally leveraged from workers for the sole purpose of profit, but as toys, they are materials for human creation. When in the presence of Al, the toys are frozen and unable to activate their subjectivity, Al can take them as objects, that is, as commodities, and as commodities they program his behavior. This situation shows the mutual imbrication of subjectivity and materiality. As exchange-values, the objects think in Al, but as use-values, meaning as toys, people think in and through them.

In Toy Story 2 it is as if the alienated subjective activity (labor) with which Andy’s toys were manufactured is able to achieve a satisfactory relation to the social realm, specifically through play. In short, alienated labor is redeemed in the humanizing world of children’s joy. That part of the worker’s life which, to her disadvantage is taken by capital in the dyssemetrical exchange of wage-labor and is frozen into the object, only to be redeemed by and for the capitalist as profit, lives again in the play of children. The dead humanity frozen in the object lives again in its valorization not as commodity in money but as the potential and particular condition of unalienated creative play. The reification of labor, the workers dying in the object, is only resurrected in a world beyond the reach of commodification.

Though it may seem strange that a commercial film in which even the people are computer-generated purports to give a lesson in humanity to our children, it is less strange that the same film would endeavor to inscribe the salvation of alienated labor in the reproduction of society. In this respect, Toy Story 2 is consistent with the standard Hollywood algebra: seek a zone of social crisis, open a realm of freedom, foreclose radical solutions. If all those talking toys are really the afterlife of workers’ activity impacted in objects, then their disgruntled relation to the market is understandable. However, their full autonomy (i.e., agency outside of market forces) is unsustainable and they must subjugate themselves to the exigencies of social reproduction even as they seek their salvation there. It is only the future which might redeem the current spectral presence of the worker in the commodity and likewise the spectral presence of the global working class, also deprived of voice and agency in the commodified regimentation of reality as globalization, in capital. The subalterns may not speak when the people who use them appear. The subjectification of the worker in the object must be avoided at all costs if society is to continue as it is. Thus, this silence of the toys in the presence of those for whom the future is being made is no simple narrative convention or even aesthetic mandate — their silence is the prerequisite of reality and its reproduction as such.

In addition to making a progressive argument against manufactured capitalist destinies and for unalienated play and personal development through non-commodified communal valuation and affiliations, Toy Story 2 wants to assert the superiority of cinema over new media. The opening sequence of the incredible action video game in which Buzz Lightyear strives to defeat his arch-enemy Zurg is thrilling, but it turns out that Buzz is being piloted by Rex, who, Buzz appropriately admits, is a better Buzz than Buzz. Video games, the film seems to suggest, are great for thrills and for role-playing, but they are only capable of proffering fixed identities and instrumental rationalities which cannot achieve the amplitude of identities on their own limited terms; new media require a cinematic universe in which narrative, and hence psychology, subjectivity and love prevail.

It is, finally, cinema which can raise the commodity-form from an alienated product to a legitimate raw material of human creation, that is, to a material in which the humanity in the object is visible in the object. To a certain extent the film strives to reveal what Georg Lukacs saw as the great revelation of Karl Marx, the insight that “underneath the cloak of a thing lay a relation between men.“But as we have seen, the humanization of the object is here bent to the purpose of reconciling all of us to the necessity of producing boys and girls who will grow up to be their parents, leaving unalienated pleasure behind as if it were only child’s play. I wonder what would happen if all those speaking toys stopped caring about the museum or Al, or, for that matter, about Emily and Andy, and, after letting out a resounding cry, lit out on their own?

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