Annotation: Sianne Ngai’s “Animatedness” (2005)

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Ngai, Sianne. “Animatedness.” Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. 89-125. Print.

In this essay Ngai asserts that stop-motion animation technology captures the ambiguous nature of human agency in the Fordist era, which she describes as “animatedness.” She particularly explores how animatedness, as a “seemingly neutral state of ‘being moved’” has been ‘twisted into the image of the overemotional racialized subject, abetting his or her construction as unusually receptive to external control” (91). Ngai argues, “to be ‘animated’ in American culture is to be racialized in some way” (95). She notes how African Americans have been popularly represented in literature and various forms of media as overly, excessively emotional. Ngai particularly calls attention to how “animatedness” as an emotional or physical response becomes racialized, corporeally attached to the visual stereotype of the African American body. She asserts that while Asian Americans seem to fall at the opposite end of the spectrum, popularly depicted as unfeeling and excessively unemotional, they are still clearly racialized for their lack of animation.

Ngai discusses the productivity of “animatedness” as a theoretical frame because the term recalls the “definitions of ‘animate’ and ‘animated’” ranging from “biological existence (‘endowed with life or the qualities of life: ALIVE”), to socially positive emotional qualities (‘lively,’ ‘full of vigor and spirit,’ ‘zest’), and finally to the historically specific mode of screen representation (‘made in the form of an animated cartoon’)” (94-95). Ngai therefore demonstrates how “animatedness” links organic life to emotional states and machine technologies.

She suggests that these connections are made even more explicit through the concept of automaziation Rey Chow presents in her essay “Postmodern Automatons.” Chow describes automatization as a condition where “one’s body and voice [is] controlled by an invisible other,” particularly reveals itself “the moment the body is made into the object of a gaze; being animated thus entails ‘becoming a spectacle whose ‘aesthetic’ power increases with one’s increasing awkwardness and helplessness’” (99). In her own essay Ngai attempts to answer Chow’s “question of how to turn automatization into autonomy and independence” (99). She asserts that while “animatedness” connotes the emotional and physical constrictions of mechanical, automatic assembly line labor, it also alludes to the potential for spontaneous, unrestricted and unexpected affective and bodily movement.

In her essay Ngai goes on to analyze a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the “narrator suddenly finds himself part of a larger audience watching a black doll puppeteered by Tod Clifton, a Harlem community leader and activist he has admired” (111). Ngai asserts that in this scene Clifton’s ventriloquism and manipulation of the doll forces his body and voice to perform unnatural actions, thereby highlighting his own automatization. Even as he animates the black doll, he is also animated by invisible, external forces. Ngai therefore suggests that one ambiguous means through which automatized human beings can exert their agency in the Fordist era is to call attention to and essentially make a spectacle of their own automatization.

She finally concludes her essay with a discussion of The PJs, “the first prime-time program in American television history to feature a completely non-white, non-middle-class, and non-live-action cast, as well as the first to depict its characters in foamation, a three-dimensional, stop-motion animation technique” (102-103). Ngai asserts that The PJs foamation dolls are automatized by technicians who physically manipulate them into appropriate positions for camera shots and by the human actors who ventriloquize their voices. Despite their illusion of wholeness on the television screen, the dolls are dissected and pieced together. Yet Ngai notes that as different mouths are continually put on and taken off of the dolls, the mouth sometimes “slides a bit from its initial position,” which the directors refer to as “‘slippery mouth’ syndrome” (116). Ngai reads this effect as uncanny movements, where the mouths “assum[e] a liveliness that is distinct from the ‘life’ given to them by the animators and that exceeds their design and control” (117). She asserts that this “unaccounted-for autonomy” is representative of the ways in which agency operates in the Fordist era and should not be overlooked or trivialized.

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  1. Fantastic blog, I hadn’t come across emergentia.wordpress.com earlier in my searches!
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