Sianne Ngai on the go-to descriptor of the modern age.
Illustration by Lilli Carré.
Most of us read or look at art in order to feel something—to experience sensations perhaps unavailable to us in everyday waking life. But it’s not just our feelings. Encountering the visions of the past, we also begin to acquire a sense of how people used to feel as well. Perhaps they lived in more interesting times, where every plot moved deathward or toward maudlin ends. Or maybe their works deadpan an aloof, utterly demystified view of the world, where the only way one feels anything at all is in short, intense bursts of euphoria. Nothing seems more intimate or idiosyncratic than our feelings, of course, but what we allow ourselves to feel is shaped by the culture around us, and art indexes how those in the past understood the scope of their imagination.
These are the issues that animate the work of the literary critic and poet Sianne Ngai. In 2005 she published Ugly Feelings, a study of “minor” states of feeling and how they have been shaped and animated by the commercial culture around us. Rather than thinking about emboldening, triumphant feelings of anger, joy or faith, for example, she wrote of “envy” and “boredom,” what it means that these feelings are so ambient and natural to us nowadays. In her new book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, she considers how those feelings help us form judgments about the aesthetic world, how we know to describe something as “interesting” or adorable (or, worse yet, “adorkable”). What does our critical vocabulary say about our present time? Is there a broader context for the conversational readymade “That’s interesting …”?
At first, talking about aesthetic experiences can seem like a dreary, specialized kind of thing. But these conversations are always about so much more than describing pretty or pleasurable things. For instance, what is the difference between beauty and the sublime? While this distinction might not strike us as particularly pressing, the two categories are suggestive of radically different ways of understanding the world, and the question—one wrestled with by figures like Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant—contains the anxieties of its time. Beauty is recognition, mastery, a scale that we can comprehend; the sublime remains mysterious, metaphysical, difficult to take in all at once. To speak of beauty and the sublime, then, is to have a conversation on rational judgment and faith.
Our Aesthetic Categories, though, argues on behalf of aesthetic experiences that aren’t quite so awe-inspiring or rare. Sitting before your computers or walking the streets of your town, you don’t encounter beautiful things as frequently as you do interesting, momentarily arresting ones—and as for the sublime, when was the last time you experienced catharsis? Instead, Ngai considers our “minor” aesthetic experiences, the ones that make up our day. The zany, cute, and interesting won’t stir us to tears or action or a belief in the creator. Rather, these are dashed-off assessments that feel like second nature, given the speed at which things circulate. But these are judgments as rich for unpacking as the beautiful or the sublime—and, in our time and place, more important than ever. Advertising doesn’t want to be beautiful or sublime; it wants to be everywhere at once, remembered but not necessarily judged. Hello Kitty and Sonic the Hedgehog don’t aspire to high art and seem totally disposable. And yet their cuteness survives the market, feeding into a persistent yearning to be able to hold and cuddle and cherish these images that don’t actually exist in the real, hyper-fluid world.
In Our Aesthetic Categories, Ngai unpacks these seemingly simple judgments and finds a great deal hidden within. For example, judging something “cute” often “infantilizes" the beholder, as we melt into a puddle of oohs and aahs at the sight of a baby bunny eating a baby carrot. But just as a child might love a doll to tatters, our absorption with “cuteness” is born of both tenderness and aggression. Something cute is something we condescend to, even as we desire to touch and ruffle and hold and possess it.
The category of zaniness is something we recognize in performance—imagine Lucille Ball at her most frazzled, Jim Carrey at the height of his super-elasticity. Ngai’s chapter on zaniness is the most historical, as she describes zaniness as a flustered, exaggerated response to the all-at-once stresses of modern life.
To deem something “interesting” is to promise to return to it. It’s a judgment that doesn’t really say anything, beyond forestalling that judgment, like a (per Ngai) “sticky note” amid an endless wash of data. At its most thoughtful, calling something “interesting” might be an expression of indeterminacy, a placeholder for a future conversation. But more often than not, it’s just conversational filler, something dropped in when you don’t feel like judging at all.
So—what does any of this mean? There have always been things that have struck people as zany, cute, or interesting. The question becomes why these kinds of judgments predominate nowadays—what historical and cultural developments they point to, how the world around us might begin to draw on our unexamined comfort in such categories. Ngai offers Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami’s paintings of surly adolescents and fanged anime knockoffs as moments when our assumptions around cuteness—the stability of feeling somehow “above” the cute object—melt away, for these images manage to be “helpless and aggressive” at the same time. Does our sense of things being “interesting” relate to our present-day situation, where “change is paradoxically constant and novelty paradoxically familiar”? Do we long to hold and protect cute things as a way of anchoring ourselves and making the world manageably small? Is the zany workplace comedy our way of obscuring how awful actual work is?
Author Sianne Ngai.
Courtesy of the author.
Our Aesthetic Categories isn’t exactly light reading—it’s certainly not as glib as a book on cuteness and zaniness, one that juxtaposes Kant, modernist poetry, Yoshitomo Nara and The Cable Guy, might suggest. It’s almost compulsively thick with references. But it’s the type of book that contains ideas that are broadly provocative, even for the “merely interested.” It is one of the most useful guides to the present I’ve read in a while, almost despite itself. It offers a way of thinking about so many forms of present-day self-expression, from the prevalence of first-person writing on the Internet to the “Like/Share”-this cheer of social networks. It helps explain a certain style of art (Tao Lin, for example) that advances on muted, subdued, contingent feelings.
Ngai’s book prepares us to think about these new ways we might feel about these relationships—how, for example, our categories for judgment seem to suggest a diffident, uncertain, ironic feeling about life and its possibilities. Does anyone ever mean it when they say something is “interesting”—or do we all, in art and conversation, merely aspire to be interesting enough? We usually ponder the present condition by considering our consumer choices or modes of self-presentation. But perhaps the line around our imagination starts elsewhere, in those aesthetic experiences that happen on the edge of comprehension. Before we are inventories of symbols and things, we are thinking, feeling people navigating a fluid, ever-changing world—a world where everything is interesting but not much more, where cuteness and zaniness are the only scales available to us when confronted with global vastness.
Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting by Sianne Ngai. Harvard University Press.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.