Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Automatism is modern

In the q&a after Sianne Ngai's recent talk here on zaniness (which was fantastic), I pulled a classic if annoying move and asked about one of my own research interests. One of the articles I've currently got in the hopper is about affective and domestic labor and states of automatism in women in the early twentieth century. According to Ngai, the zany mode originates in the commedia dell'arte character of the zanni, a personal servant whose job it is to manage social ties. Since Ngai had remarked on the almost compulsive quality of the zany, I asked her to expand on the connection between zaniness and automatism.

Ngai's response was to distinguish between the zany and "animatedness" (from her first book), animatedness being mechanical and evidence of a loss of subjectivity, whereas the zany is an excess of subjectivity, of constantly performing affective labor of various sorts in a manner that models the labor structure of late capitalism.

The follow-up question, had I wished to pull another classic yet annoying move, would have been this:

Isn't automatism sometimes precisely an excess of subjectivity?--subjectivity bubbling up through the body whether you will it or no? I think of psychoanalysis, of automatic writing, etc.

Zaniness, as Ngai so convincingly characterizes it, is automatic in the sense that it is compulsive; it can't be stopped. But I'm also backhandedly persuaded that automatism isn't quite the right word to describe that loss of will, at least in the postmodern context that interests Ngai. It seems to me that the main problem with thinking about zaniness as, on one hand, the form of labor in late capitalism, and on the other hand, as automatic, is actually a historical problem. There's something modern, and not postmodern, about automatism. The machine is only an interestingly strong point of comparison for a human being without will when machines are understood as meaningfully different from people to begin with. That notion starts to break down somewhere midcentury. To insist that machines don't have subjectivity--or rather, to make subjectivity the question to begin with--is a modern gesture. T. S. Eliot may be horrified by the typist's "automatic hand," but, typists all, we're not disturbed in the slightest. Click. Click. A general agnosticism about subjectivity characterizes postmodernism.

The zany may have a long history, but if late capitalism is where it truly comes into its own, then the question of automatism is moot.

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