In her book Ugly Feelings Sianne Ngai turns her fine analytical skills to what she calls the “affective spectacle” (125) of animatedness. She writes, “The affective ideologeme of animatedness foregrounds the degree to which emotional qualities seem especially prone to sliding into corporeal qualities where the African-American subject is concerned, reinforcing the notion of race as a truth located, quite naturally, in the always obvious, highly visible body” (95). This affective and visible slippage tilts in one direction toward political agitation (the link between agitation and animation, p. 96), and in the other direction toward the automation and subjection of puppetry and ventriloquism (so that a raced body becomes “an instrument, porous and pliable, for the vocalization of others,” p. 97).
In other words, the affective and visible slippage of animatedness conjoins the corporeal qualities of spontaneity and routinization, of free will and of the marionette.
Drawing on Eisenstein’s discussion of the “plasmaticness” of Disney cell animation and Chow’s analysis of the “simultaneous visualization and technologization” of modern bodies (99-100), Ngai deftly connects our fascination with the automatic motion of inanimate objects to the equally human fascination with the putatively ‘grotesque’, hyper-motion (excessive animation) of raced bodies. She clarifies how the attribution of ‘liveliness’ complexly entwines racially non-hegemonic bodies that, on the one hand, cannot escape abject power dynamics that circumscribe (routinize) the public display of racial difference and, on the other hand, overflow (spontaneously) bodily difference in willed–and expected–displays of ‘entertainment.’ Ngai’s point is to claim a space for non-stereotypical representations of race: “There can be ways of inhabiting a social role that actually distort its boundaries,” she writes of the African American characters on The PJs, a Fox Television animated comedy that ran from 1998-2000.
This point is called into question by the murder of Michael Brown, and more recently of Tamir Rice; by the subsequent public explosions of rage, grief, impotent frustration, and bitterness; and by the widespread and growing disbelief that the structures of society can at all protect or serve non-white bodies. Though her optimism might be hard to swallow right now, Ngai’s analysis remains spot-on. The fatally damning (and damningly fatal) rhythms of racism lie in the specular and spectacular dynamics that force non-white bodies to inhabit a doubly “fascinating” corporeality, a bodily presence that is both like the mechanical routinization of a marionette or factory production line and like the spontaneous freedom of an overflowing and agitated will. Such a body is seen to be both thing and terror. Such a body is seen to be an object in motion, and a moving will that overflows its boundaries.
To change this rhythm of racism requires changing the dynamics of what is seen, and to change ‘what is seen’ requires labor on our affective ideologemes. Ngai borrows this phrase from Barbara Johnson, for whom it signals “semic complex[es] which can project [themselves] in the form of a ‘value system'” (7). But the concept is better situated as the very structure of feeling, and, agonizingly, also the very feeling of social structure, of the base-line ‘seeing’ of the distinction between a person and a thing.
Photo #2: http://communitytable.com/327329/iraphael/powerful-photos-from-protests-in-ferguson-missouri/#gallery_327329-3. Photo number 17.