Our Aesthetic Categories

Aesthetics as a philosophical discipline was an invention of the Enlightenment, and appropriately enough, most of the historical discussion has focused on the beautiful and the sublime. However, as J. L. Austin noted in “A Plea for Excuses,” the classic problems are not always the best site for fieldwork in aesthetics: “If only we could forget for a while about the beautiful and get down instead to the dainty and the dumpy.” Sianne Ngai, a professor in the English department at Stanford University, has dedicated years of research to such marginal categories within aesthetics. She is the author of a book on minor affects called Ugly Feelings and several heavily photocopied papers on aesthetics, including “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” (2005) and “Merely Interesting” (2008). Ngai is interested in states of weakness: in “minor” or non-cathartic feelings that index situations of suspended agency; in trivial aesthetic categories grounded in ambivalent or even explicitly contradictory feelings. Her writing demonstrates the surprising power these weak affects and aesthetic categories seem to have, in why they’ve become so paradoxically central to late capitalist culture. Central to this publication is her focus on feelings that do not facilitate action, that do not lead to or culminate in some kind of purgation or release—irritation, for example, as opposed to anger. These feelings are therefore politically ambiguous, but good for diagnosing states of suspended agency, due in part to their diffusiveness and/or lack of definite objects.

In Our Aesthetic Categories she explores the ‘cute’, the ‘zany’ and the ‘interesting’ as new aesthetic frameworks. Ngai argues that cuteness, for example, is a way of aestheticising powerlessness – and 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. There is, therefore, a sadistic side to this tender emotion, as people like Daniel Harris have noted elsewhere. Cuteness is also a commodity aesthetic, with close ties to the pleasures of domesticity and easy consumption. 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. The zany, however, more specifically evokes the performance of affective labour—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

Sianne Ngai
Harvard University Press

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