Toy Story and the Long Recession

by zunguzungu

Toy Story 3 is a dark movie, for dark times. Don’t kid yourself: this is a movie about the long recession, the psychic trauma of unemployment, the false promises of flexible employment, the specter of our useful lives as workers ending in being dumped, and above all, how labor’s self-discipline becomes insanity when there is no job to be disciplined for.

After all, if there was a time when “Capital” and “Labor” were speakable, thinkable agents, when workers understood themselves to be negotiating the price of their labor with their employers from opposite sides of the table — and derived identity from that negotiation — it was because the entire production process hinged on the exploitation of labor: Capital wanted Labor because it needed it to exist; Labor used Capital because it could, and had agency in doing so. Becoming a good worker, in such a world, could be a way to survive, because labor really did have a price, and for all that would be given up in that kind of contractual system, it was a contract enforced by reciprocal utility. Being used could be a way of life, and not necessarily a bad one.

Toy Story 3, however, tells the story of labor in a world where that has become an unattainable fantasy, where labor is not so much without value as without price. For reasons narratively attributed only to the passing of time (and thus naturalized), Capital has no need for or interest in Labor, spending all his time with his computer instead. Their jobs have gone away, and even the most Herculean efforts on their part to interest him in exploiting them and fulfill their fondest desires of having their surplus value extracted (the business with the cell phone at the start), simply fall on deaf ears. They have nothing to offer, nothing to bargain with, and nothing to be.

Woody, of course, is the last worker to be let go, the lone remaining bastion of a working class, and thoroughly in denial about the existential dilemma staring him in the face. He alone gets to accompany Capital off to “college,” but of course he has no future there, as the let-go toys are able to understand: he will be permitted, perhaps, to smooth the transition and instruct his replacements, but the other toys are right when they remind him that college is no place for a toy. In fact, this is what’s most interesting about this surprising revival of the Toy Story franchise, the fact that, for the first time, Woody is wrong to insist on fidelity to Andy, not merely wrong, in fact, but positioned as being in actual denial of reality. For the first time in the franchise, the other, less privileged toys assert that their self-interest compels them to look for other options, and his refusal to accept that possibility is positioned as somewhere between clinically irrational and sociopathic, heartless.

Of course, the movie resolves its contradictions by way of the magic-super-happy-ending, as it must, a fantasy solution to an otherwise grim sociological inevitability that leads from plastic birth to dumpster. The sudden virtuous intervention of the Dickensian good rich guy allows it to avoid the much more narratively true ending — that incredibly jarring solidarity-of-the-damned moment in the incinerator — because, after all, this is a kids movie and it has to end happily. But as the moment when the cargo-cult becomes reality nicely demonstrates (“The Crane!”), the movie is just throwing up its hands here, giving up on reality; a movie that has been up until then the saddest children’s movie since, well, the last two Pixar movies, suddenly becomes a preposterous fantasy and seems to know it. I think.

But whether or not that’s true, like so many of Hollywood’s truest movies, the ending is really not the point, being only the fantasy resolution of a problem whose insolvability was what made the narrative work in the first place. Here, the problem of identifying as a worker in a time and place where “worker” is an identity evacuated of meaning is the true thing the movie shows us: Woody is in denial, but the other, less traditionally privileged toys understand what he does not and have even reached a certain kind of acceptance of their own mortality (which he, in the incinerator is the last to share). This is about death, like Wall-E at the apocalypse, bravely and pointlessly fulfilling his function for employers that don’t even know he exists, and just as pointlessly, robotically, and stupidly. But being robotic will not save you from being replaced by actual machines (and watch the role played by computers in the movie); with no work left for workers to do, there is no “worker” left for them be defined by.

Even that magic-super-happy-ending still shows the narrative traces of that underlying problem: as always, Woody cannot imagine acting or speaking as himself — can only voice his desires through Andy’s mother in the moment where she wants to be with him always, his own ruling desire — yet in writing that note he is acting on desires that he himself cannot imagine, manipulating in selfish personal interest the one who must not only be obeyed but loved even unto death. But in the sane, same moment as he saves all of them, he ceases to be a toy. And what enables his transformation, interestingly, is Andy’s lack of desire for a toy. We know that Woody would never have been able to refuse Andy anything, would never have been able to say no if Andy had simply decided to throw them all in the attic to collect dust. But when Andy doesn’t care, can‘t decide what to do, it opens up space for Woody’s own transformation, feeble as it may be, the moment when he places himself at the bottom of a pile of discarded workers rather be the last man standing, escaping out through the cracks of a social order in which he has, for the first time, dared to assert his own existence.