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.

Annotation: Susan Buck-Morss’ “Hegel and Haiti” (2009)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Leonora Sansay’s Secret History. See my prospectus here.

Buck-Morss, Susan. “Part One: Hegel and Haiti.” Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. 3-75. Print.

In this excerpt of her book, Buck-Morss emphasizes the need to further examine how Haiti and the Haitian Revolution influenced Hegel’s philosophy. She discusses that as the first philosopher to describe “the deterritorialized, world of the European colonial system,” Hegel argued that rather than freely entering a contractual agreement, human beings were always already caught in a complex network of “commodity exchange” (8, 10). Buck-Morss asserts that antislavery revolution “provides the theoretical hinge that takes Hegel’s analysis out of the limitlessly expanding colonial economy and onto the plane of world history which he defines as the realization of freedom” (12). Therefore, rather than the traditionally Marxist-centric analyses of Hegel’s work, Buck-Morss accentuates the importance of considering how the slaves’ struggle for freedom in Saint Domingue, which directly occurred during Hegel’s lifetime, influenced and shaped his philosophical thought.

Hegel’s explication of the master-slave relationship begins with the slave in the position of total dependence on the master to provide him sustenance through colonial economic surplus, where the state of “slave consciousness” is that of “thinghood” (54). Yet the reversal comes when the slaves realize the master’s dependence on them, allowing them to view themselves as “not things, not object, but subjects who transform material nature” (54). While Buck-Morss asserts that Hegel becomes “silent” about what follows this moment of realization, she contends that the slaves ultimately achieve their humanity and agency in determining to fight a revolution to secure their freedom. Buck-Morss’ elaboration of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, how self-realization inspires a revolution for freedom will provide a helpful framework from which to analyze the events in Sansay’s <em>Secret History</em>. If she parallels the struggle for slave and female emancipation it would be interesting to consider Clara’s moment of self-realization and her own revolutionary path to freedom.

Annotation: E.L. McCallum’s “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction” (2000)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, as yet, still untitled. See my prospectus here.

McCallum, E.L. “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction.” Poetics Today 21.2 (2000): 349-77. Print.

In this essay McCallum asserts the importance of examining the function and role of “real” space in cyberpunk fiction. She argues that while works of the genre are traditionally noted for their innovative representations of virtual spaces through “distance transcending technology” such as the internet, characters still deeply rely on the real material world and it only through physically traversing this realm that certain narrative ends can be accomplished (350). McCallum emphasizes that by shifting the critical focus to “real” space, we can see how “old” colonialist systems and familiar oppressive power structures (race, gender, nationality, class, etc) continue to organize the apparently “futuristic” virtual space. She ultimately asserts that the contemporary cyberpunk genre has its roots in imperialistic adventure narratives such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and fail to transcend the geographic and ideological norms of our current society, making these texts rather conservative. But I argue that rather than lacking the creativity to imagine a more “transcendent” future, cyberpunk authors are interested in exposing familiar oppressions and exploitations in order to emphasize the urgency with which trends such as globalization and corporatization may be severely perpetuated into the future through more insidious means such as the Internet. While McCallum notes important parallels between virtual and real space, she does not explicate how organizational conventions of race, gender, nationality, class, etc are re-inscribed in the “Metaverse” of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which I hope to further expand on in my own paper.

With respect to the novel, McCallum importantly demonstrates how the boundary between reality and cyberspace is destabilized. Hiro can move not only in between these two realms, but also through both at the same time, he “can remain hooked into the Metaverse while traversing the real” (366). Unlike McCallum who sees this as a reliance of the virtual on the real, I argue that this moment reveals the potential of this convergence to enhance human agency, where technology can be used to affect change. Therefore, while McCallum concludes her article with the assertion that cyberpunk protagonists do not offer any viable means of resisting or critiquing the corporate culture and that our best hope is to become adept at maneuvering through this reality, in my paper I hope to challenge her defeatist position.

As a slightly unrelated point, McCallum also discusses in her article, the difficulty of localizing transnational corporations in Snow Crash, which not only operate in multiple locales throughout the world but also virtual spaces in the “Metaverse.” This is a particularly interesting point from which to examine current implications of corporate globalization.