If “cuteness” is symptomatic of the aesthetics of contemporary consumption, “zaniness” is about production. Perhaps the classic cinematic example would be Charlie Chaplin’s character in Modern Times, who struggles energetically to submit to the inhuman demands of the factory in which he works. Unable to keep up with the staccato demands of the production line, Chaplin is dragged by the conveyor belt into the heart of the machine itself. In a delirious sequence, he is wrapped around giant gears and waltzes through the innards of the machine before being spat out like Jonah from the whale. Incorporated and then ejected, he has been reborn as the little tramp, whose stuttering walk and ticky gestures echo the movement of celluloid film through a projector. Victimized by the machine, Chaplin becomes the archetypal modern zany; a jittery bundle of crankshaft limbs, whose stiff gestures make every vibration of the projector visible upon the screen. To excavate the prehistory of such slapstick, Ngai goes back to the original “zanni” of the commedia dell’arte, the illiterate peasant driven by poverty into the city and forced into the incompetent pursuit of every imaginable trade or vocation.
more from Adam Jasper at Bookforum here.