Toy Story

I

The largest annual toy fair in the world closed in New York on Wednesday, February 13th, after a four-day run.  It was convened as usual at the Javits Center over on 12th Avenue, the vast convention hall between 34th and 40th Street (it’s the place Governor Cuomo wants to close in favor of a convention center in Queens).

You know what the book exhibit at the Modern Language Association or the American Historical Association looks like?  That windowless ballroom where you need proof of registration to enter and browse the publishers’ booths?  That significant space is typically about 30,000 square feet of boring books, diffident reps, and muted colors, which combine with the florescent light to create the ambience of a professional bowling event, where a normal tone of voice sounds vaguely alarming, a muted signal of emergency: nobody’s dying, but someone has thrown the equivalent of a gutter ball.

The International Toy Fair took up about 600,000 square feet in the Javits Center—Mattel had its own floor, where nobody except reporters and buyers with serious credentials were admitted.  Nothing was boring, nobody was diffident, and the colors were strident, shocking, as if everything here were plastic, or rather, because everything was plastic except the old-fashioned wooden sleds hanging in the booth next to the Sol Wheels.  These popular devices look like portable housing for a garden hose, but they’re unicycles without the height or the effort: you just stand there on a wheel and it moves you, like you’re Barney Rubble with a skinny tie and a back pack.  A set of Sol Wheels will cost you $1800.

The ambient effects were intriguing noise, theatrical voices, astonishing vistas, even strange smells, combining to make the scene feel like the parking lot outside a football stadium before the game: this is all earnest preparation for a spectacle that must be fun for somebody, somehow.  I place emphasis on that word because for all the insane frivolity of the event—toys are for children, but they get bought by adults who work for a living—this is a command economy.

Welcome to industrialized fun, where play is work.  And vice versa, of course!  The dialectic is never dead, only dormant, just ask Zizek.

The International Toy Fair takes the same “wholesale” approach as the publishers at the academic conventions.  At the MLA or the AHA, the exhibitors in the booths are there to sell to the middlemen and the distributors—professors like me, who will decide what products the retail consumer, the student, can buy in his or her segment of the curricular market.  At the Toy Fair, to be sure, the exhibitors are there to sell to much more important middlemen and distributors like Amazon or Costco.  Still, the analogy holds: large textbook adoptions are often determined by department committees.

Now reverse the field and imagine yourself hawking your monograph on the sexuality of the sans-culottes, or the politics of Reconstruction in DeKalb County, Georgia, in this kind of space, like you’ve got a trade book on your hands.  It’s not entirely fanciful.  The toy buyers browsing these thousands of aisles—deciding what to stock for next year—include small businessmen like John Middlekamp, who owns two upscale stores called Zoom in Kansas City, Missouri, one on Country Club Hill, an opulent “open mall.”

Think of him as a buyer at a book fair in Berlin.  Think of him as a publisher.  What would you be pitching?  Soon you’ll be wondering, because academic publishing won’t last any longer than tenure—I mean the academic system of seniority, not the certification of your job security.  Then what?

II

I was there to experience the scene because in noodling around on the Internet one day, I had stumbled on a promotional video for a new toy.  Watching it made me get all anthropological, willing to trek those four long desolate blocks from the 2 Train at Times Square to the Hudson River, fighting for pedestrian space with buses bound for Lincoln Tunnel.  This little video depicts, elicits, and magnifies every infantile desire Freud ever discovered, so I had to go there, to the place where wishes and dreams are accorded the dignity they deserve.  Not to the shrink’s office, no, to the Javits Center decked out as the Toy Fair.

My quasi-official guide escorted me from exhibit to exhibit on the acreage Mattel hadn’t monopolized—it had its own floor and its own security staff, no way we could get in.  She was gleeful, I was overwhelmed, and then I was giddy, like her.  At my request, she played “Jishaku” with a rep who claimed that the unscrupulous guys downstairs had ripped off his boss’s concept—place polished magnetized stones in a felt background, you win if your stones don’t attract others, imagine that.  His solemn conclusion was “It’s all about finesse.”  After watching them play, I agreed, but I still didn’t know who won, or why. Then, at my request, we entered the huge Manhattan Toy site because Parents Magazine was part of the logo, and we all got a little embarrassed when I quizzed the nice woman at the booth about the obviously grotesque affiliation.

My favorite moment came when I tried to topple the Dominoes at the eponymous site—this company is trying to diversify the brand, like Lego, which, I noticed, had commandeered a space the size of a ranch on the second floor.  After I wrestled with the nice little black and beige oblongs, assuming I’d level this playing field—it looked like a miniature cemetery, now that I think about it, serried rows of uniform markers, let’s kill the dead!—the guy in charge said, with practiced aplomb, “They’re glued down.”

I said, “What the fuck, what’s the point if you can’t make them do what they’re supposed to?”  As I said this, though, I saw the “moving life of the dead” Hegel had depicted as monotonous factory work—in his theological writings, in Jena, long before Toussaint or the master-slave dialectic—and I saw the “dance of death” Alex Cockburn had described as the board game of aristocrats we call chess.

OK, I couldn’t actually see these things, but I could begin to feel that every kind of work is preparation for play, and that play, even when disguised as work, is preparation for death.  I could see that maybe Georges Bataille was right about the nature of human desire, after all—it’s always about excess and expenditure, he claimed, always aimed at a pointless waste of resources.  I wanted to steal a domino.

The man in charge shrugged, then he laughed, he had the right attitude.  “It’s like chess,” he said, confirming all my suspicions.  I looked down at the board, where hundreds of little oblongs stood waiting for my first and last direction, and said, “C’mon, man, you can move the pieces when you play chess.”  He said, “Yeah, but you know how it turns out, it’s win or lose.”  I was stunned, I said, “It’s not a game if everybody loses.”

“Exactly,” he said. “This is not a game.”

He was right, it’s a game when the Cubans or the Dominicans play their fast and loose version of Dominoes, clacking and betting and screaming.  This board contained something else—it was a monument built, with painstaking effort, to be wasted gloriously, like a religious shrine.  Everybody loses, but the resulting deficit gives us faith in the future.

Our next stop, in Aisle 2100, was the Marshmallow Fun Company, which has patented and now produces every imaginable plastic device that lets you shoot edible white pellets.  I bought two mini cross-bows, ten bucks apiece, that will send a tiny marshmallow thirty feet with a gratifying sound, the inarticulate equivalent of the emphatic exhalations that come with sex, drugs, and sports events, also death, speaking of Bataille.  My hope was to engage my girlfriend in not-so-sublimated warfare—“Take that, bitch!”—but alas, as a daughter of Enlightenment, she has no interest in skirmishes conducted on this level of idiocy.

III

But as I say, I was there to explore the psychological and perhaps political dimensions of toys, specifically the toy I saw in the video, which mandates and enables personal rebirth by a verbal pact with an impending reality: by wishing that comes true, like a contract, or rather by wishing for the truth even if you don’t know what that is.  Perhaps, I thought, the wasted time we call play isn’t as bound up with those three fundamental realities—food, sex, death.  Perhaps Bataille was wrong in this sense, perhaps toys mine another seam of social reality, the Satanic-Adamic urge to give birth to yourself, or, as Freud put it, “to become father to yourself,” and not just in the limited, clinical sense that the child must be father to the man.

Here’s how that toy works.

You buy the product, a stuffed animal with an opening in its abdomen, and you place your wish there, in writing, in this gestational space.  Then you wait on the world.  If the wish comes true, you share it with the person who has fulfilled it—you name him or her as the cause, not merely the symptom or the effect, of your condition, which is your happiness.  If the wish doesn’t come true, that’s OK, there are no time limits on your search—when your patience is exhausted, you retrieve the message, and you rewrite.

You’re unhappy about your life, and you want desperately to change it.  How do you accomplish that?  You make a wish, and then you act as if it will come true, you commit yourself and then you see—as if your willingness, in every sense, is a real cause of what happens in the world.  Now this urge is not merely childish, “wishful thinking” as we used to say.  Your being-in-the-world just is the volition you bring to the situation at hand, equipped with purposes you can’t know and may never be able to acknowledge.  In that sense, you are always already “thrown” into the world, where you will discover a self—not by coming across yourself, perceiving yourself, but by being brought before yourself, made manifest by the material articulations of your inchoate intentions.  By projection, in short, not introspection.

I went to the Toy Fair because I wanted to see how this product, this idea, might appear to people without my preconceptions.  To begin with, what did the creator think about what she had created?  I was more interested in how the video answered that question than in the thing itself—I never did get hold of the stuffed animal, although I inspected it closely—so my account is still biased in favor of astonishment, wonder, and magical thinking, the properties of children, alchemists, and poets.

In other words, the following reconstruction of my conversation with the inventor is what I wished for.  She later denied she said any of it, and she may be right.

How do you make dreams work?

“I wanted it to be real, and honest, you know?  Not happy, because sometimes when your dream comes true, it’s not all good, it can be awful, just awful.  You get what you want, and then what?  You wanted this guy, a certain kind of guy, and he turns out to be not what you needed.  Look, I’m not talking about myself here.  Yeah, he’s good looking, and he works out, but he’s not . . . well, he’s just not what you need.  You mention the video, it’s mostly sad, everybody’s wishing for something they don’t have, they want to hope.”

You mean the wishing is a kind of denial?

“No, well, yeah, you can put everything aside, you have a purpose.  You don’t care that the sink is full of dishes, maybe you don’t look so good today.  Things could turn out because you know what you want.”

And what you really want is to give birth, like, to yourself?  The video makes me feel like the wish is a seed planted in a female abdomen, then it’s removed by Caesarean section when it’s ready, well-baked.  You become father to yourself, no?  Like the American Adam.

“No, you’re reading way too much into it.  It’s not about having babies.  It’s about facing reality.”

OK, reality.  But maybe, in that sense, it’s about having control of your life—your body?  Freud wrote some cool stuff about how you first experience autonomy by controlling your bowels, then you start equating feces and babies and, uh, penises: they all seem to come from the same place, you know?  You’re not thinking this when you’re a toddler, it’s always unconscious.  It sounds weird, I know.

“It sounds disgusting.”

Yeah, it is, but that’s the nature of the wish, no?  I mean, who really wants what they wish for?  Midas, “Bedazzled,” whatever, your desires don’t have much to do with reality, not once you get past food and clothing, and even there you’re—

“It’s not that complicated.  This toy lets people find happiness when they’re sad, they get to forget what makes them sad.  What’s wrong with that?”

Nothing, nothing is wrong with that, how could there be anything wrong with that?  Except maybe you don’t want to forget what makes you sad because if you do, you’ll regret it, you’ll forget what made you.  You said you didn’t want the video to be happy, you wanted it to be real.  There’s sadness in it.

“But only up to a point.  You can do something about it, you can change your life by hoping for something.”

Something that isn’t visible?  The conviction of things unseen?

“Yes, it’s not here.  Not yet.  Not yet.  But you can believe in it.”

 

 

 

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