Thursday, October 4, 2012

Cuteness and Zaniness

From an interview with Sianne Ngai in Cabinet Magazine, h/t Tim Morton. These comments are very suggestive, and certainly relevant to anyone interested in cartoons. I find the comments of zaniness particularly interesting as the point up a particular aspect that’s very widespread in cartoons going back to the 1920s. Alas, Ngai doesn't seem to realize that cartoons exist. She's willing to talk about TV and movies, but the lowly cartoon seems beneath her purview.

Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness. It hinges on a sentimental attitude toward the diminutive and/or weak, which is why cute objects—formally simple or noncomplex, and deeply associated with the infantile, the feminine, and the unthreatening—get even cuter when perceived as injured or disabled. So there’s a sadistic side to this tender emotion, as people like Daniel Harris have noted. The prototypically cute object is the child’s toy or stuffed animal.

Cuteness is also a commodity aesthetic, with close ties to the pleasures of domesticity and easy consumption. As Walter Benjamin put it: “If the soul of the commodity which Marx occasionally mentions in jest existed, it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would have to see in everyone the buyer in whose hand and house it wants to nestle.” Cuteness could also be thought of as a kind of pastoral or romance, in that it indexes the paradoxical complexity of our desire for a simpler relation to our commodities, one that tries in a utopian fashion to recover their qualitative dimension as use.
I’m not sure I buy that last bit. Heck, I’m not even sure I know what it means. And:
The asymmetry of power that cuteness revolves around is another compelling reminder of how aesthetic categories register social conflict. There can be no experience of any person or object as cute that does not somehow call up the subject’s sense of power over those who are less powerful. But, as Lori Merish underscores, the fact that the cute object seems capable of making an affective demand on the subject—a demand for care that the subject is culturally as well as biologically compelled to fulfill—is already a sign that “cute” does not just denote a static power differential, but rather a dynamic and complex power struggle.
I like the element of demand that Ngai mentions. That’s certainly how I read a lot of anime. The cuteness is not so much a statement about the character as it is a demand on the viewer: “Cut me some slack. (Please)”

While the cute is thus about commodities and consumption, the zany is about performing. Intensely affective and highly physical, it’s an aesthetic of nonstop action that bridges popular and avant-garde practice across a wide range of media: from the Dada cabaret of Hugo Ball to the sitcom of Lucille Ball. You could say that zaniness is essentially the experience of an agent confronted by—even endangered by—too many things coming at her quickly and at once. ... So much of “serious” postwar American literature is zany, for instance, that one reviewer’s description of Donald Barthelme’s Snow White—“a staccato burst of verbal star shells, pinwheel phrases, [and] cherry bombs of … puns and wordplays”—seems applicable to the bulk of the post-1945 canon, from Ashbery to Flarf; Ishmael Reed to Shelley Jackson.

I’ve got a more specific reading of post-Fordist or contemporary zaniness, which is that it is an aesthetic explicitly about the politically ambiguous convergence of cultural and occupational performance, or playing and laboring, under what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the new “connexionist” spirit of capitalism. As perhaps exemplified best by the maniacal frivolity of the characters played by Ball in I Love Lucy, Richard Pryor in The Toy, and Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy, the zany more specifically evokes the performance of affective labor—the production of affects and relationships—as it comes to increasingly trouble the very distinction between work and play. This explains why this ludic aesthetic has a noticeably unfun or stressed-out layer to it. Contemporary zaniness is not just an aesthetic about play but about work, and also about precarity, which is why the threat of injury is always hovering about it.
Hmmm... Seems to me that Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Pink Elephants on Parade fit right in here. “Unfun” and “stressed out”—exactly. But not quite post-Fordist. Those sequences were animated amid Fordism, not only in the society at large, but in Disney’s own operation. Ratatouille’s in here too. They’ve dialed down the cute, but zany’s in there, and roaring in the last kitchen sequence (which I discuss HERE).

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