The term "embodiment" refers both to the dynamics of living within a specific and particular human physical form as well as to the material existence of non-human beings and objects. But this dual meaning, under the analysis of an expansive and creative theorist such as Mel Y. Chen, becomes less an issue of differing definitions than a provocation to recognize how each version of the term matters to the other. For matter, as such, is animate: people move and affect animals, animals move and affect things, things move and affect people. At various times, amongst different people, these chains of connection are reinforced or denied by rhetorics of legitimacy, hierarchy, and normalization. Describing and analyzing these connections, especially the contemporary assumptions about the propriety of space and bodies with which Chen's book is concerned, leads to a better understanding of what kinds of lives and modes of existence become possible or precarious in modern society.
Just as minds can never be disengaged from bodies, bodies can never be separated from the other forms of matter with which they constantly interact. Such materialities have what Chen refers to as "animacy," a term which like its close cousin "vitalism" suggests a series of forces, swerves, and surprises inherent to matter, but, unlike vitalism, emphasizes the profound associations between humans and non-human animals, and between the organic and the inorganic. Animacy entails forms of enlivening: to animate is to bring to life, or to a new kind of existence. It is a "craft of the senses; it endows our surroundings with life, death, and things in between" (55). Chen relates this linguistically to another form of remaking existence, that of queering. Both, she argues, operate along lines of creation and refiguration, recognizing connections where they have previously been denied. Queering, she argues, "is immanent to animate transgressions, violating proper intimacies" (11).
Chen's exemplary case is the animalization of certain humans. Pointing to historical, visual, and rhetorical renditions of dehumanizations of particular populations, she explains how such representations are meant to delegitimize the political claims of immigrant populations, racial groups, and sexual minorities. Nineteenth-century images emphasize animal characteristics (newly enfranchised ex-slaves as monkeys; Chinese immigrants as rats) to displace people into categories of barbarism and primitivism. Unlike other critiques along these lines, such as those by Jennifer Wolch or Glen Elder, Chen is also interested in how the animality of humans creates a feedback loop of meaning. That is, what happens to our assumptions once we realize that humans are, in fact, animals, and that different emphases of this inherent animality can reinforce our animate bodies?
Ultimately, such animacies interrupt presumptions concerning gender, race, sex, desire, and ability. Though such categorizations pretend to arise from the physical renditions that bodies take, Chen shows how they operate by spanning complex ideological, historical, and categorical positionings. What to make, for example, of the active and medicalized incapacitation of the sexuality of pets? On the one hand, such forced sterilization fundamentally transforms a dog or cat's entire identity, unquestionably without permission; on the other, it protects future suffering of other animals and promotes useful forms of docility and domestication. "Neutering or spaying animals is a preeminent queering device, since the idealized spaying or neutering halts sexual reproduction, prevents overlittering, and — in the case of pet ownership — redirects desires to the maintenance of pet owner kinship formations within the human household" (133). Evocative of historical and continuing sterilization of racial and ethnic human beings, such intentional disablings of non-human animals resonate across different lines of biopolitical control.
The final few chapters of Animacies spool out even more radical implications of the imbrications between bodies and matter. Once we recognize how other forms of the material world make up our selves, the limits and boundaries between these kind of matter become difficult to identify. By turning to metals, specifically lead and mercury, Chen analyzes the makeup of toxic human bodies. The scares over "Chinese lead," especially in children's toys, arises from a nexus of international labor, capital, security, and nationality, all played out on the fraught ground of young bodies. (Chen does not point out that our history of leaded gasoline provides hundreds of times the source of lead in today's Americans than does paint on toys.) Similarly, the presence of mercury in our diet, in our tooth fillings, and historically, in inoculations, has made us mercurial: changed who we are, what we can do, what our bodies are made of. Both of these metals, Chen points out, result in intoxification.
A generous and telling passage of a half-dozen pages shows what kind of writing Chen is trying to develop. Almost two hundred pages into the book, she introduces the reader to herself in the first person as she confronts an episode of environmental sensitivity. Whether walking down the street in "racial skin and chemical mask" (200), or sinking into her leather (animal) covered couch after feeling unable to connect to her lover, Chen neither calumnizes nor celebrates the heavy metals which simultaneously poison her and make her who she is. Instead, she notes the transitivity between states of being: emotional, metallic, lively, toxic. All of these, even those which harm our bodies, make us who we are — our intersubjective and constantly changing selves.
The usual, clichéd wish for a book is that it will stimulate discussion, debate, and new ideas. But Chen sets a more difficult and more rewarding goal. Animacies, read with an open mind and a willingness to engage in high theory, popular culture, and an almost sacrilegious decentering of the human, itself animates: questions of who I am, what my body means to me, where does it come from, and what will become of it all transform the attentive reader into a new kind of being. If, in doing so, we become more insecure in our privilege and power, less confident in the binaries between matter and life or human and non-human, then we can better recognize our embeddedness in the world, with all the intoxifications that implies.