Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting
The zany, the cute, and the interesting saturate postmodern culture. They dominate the look of its art and commodities as well as our discourse about the ambivalent feelings these objects often inspire. In this radiant study, Sianne Ngai offers a theory of the aesthetic categories that most people use to process the hypercommodified, mass-mediated, performance-driven world of late capitalism, treating them with the same seriousness philosophers have reserved for analysis of the beautiful and the sublime.
Ngai explores how each of these aesthetic categories expresses conflicting feelings that connect to the ways in which postmodern subjects work, exchange, and consume. As a style of performing that takes the form of affective labor, the zany is bound up with production and engages our playfulness and our sense of desperation. The interesting is tied to the circulation of discourse and inspires interest but also boredom. The cute's involvement with consumption brings out feelings of tenderness and aggression simultaneously. At the deepest level, Ngai argues, these equivocal categories are about our complex relationship to performing, information, and commodities.
Through readings of Adorno, Schlegel, and Nietzsche alongside cultural artifacts ranging from Bob Perelman's poetry to Ed Ruscha's photography books to the situation comedy of Lucille Ball, Ngai shows how these everyday aesthetic categories also provide traction to classic problems in aesthetic theory. The zany, cute, and interesting are not postmodernity's only meaningful aesthetic categories, Ngai argues, but the ones best suited for grasping the radical transformation of aesthetic experience and discourse under its conditions.
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Sianne Ngai has written an important book which harks back to the heyday of the leftist literary theory of the 1980s, and is none the worse for that. Dense and demanding, occasionally meandering, [it is] equally at home with I Love Lucy and conceptual art, Theodor Adorno and Jim Carrey... Laudable and ambitious... In order for art to fulfill its role and for criticism to survive, 'aesthetic theory' needs to develop new and powerful concepts which reflect both art's changing nature and its ubiquity. This challenging and important book takes the first steps in this task.-- (04/12/2013)
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.-- (12/01/2012)
[Ngai's] wide-ranging, synthetic approach is exactly the kind of criticism our ever-accreting culture deserves, and maybe even the criticism we need. By indexing the kinds of feeling-based judgments we make in our daily lives, Ngai opens up questions about how emotions can act in social contexts more generally, how our private experiences might shape our political and economic discourses.-- (10/14/2012)
Ngai argues that traditional aesthetic concepts of the beautiful and the sublime are inadequate in our post modern hyper-commodifed culture. She's really on to something.-- (06/13/2014)
Ngai argues that three aesthetic categories usually considered of minor importance are crucial to understanding contemporary culture. The categories in question, the zany, the cute, and the interesting, 'are best suited for grasping how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism.' In defense of this thesis, Ngai deploys a formidable grasp of the aesthetic theories of Schlegel, Nietzsche, Adorno, and Cavell, among many others. Her knowledge of more recent pop culture is equally wide ranging: readers will especially find illuminating her discussion of the zany Lucille Ball. Ngai aims to show how production, circulation, and consumption in contemporary capitalism are mirrored in the cultural world. She argues that the importance of the three marginal categories requires a revision of classical aesthetics. We need not abandon the beautiful and the sublime, but we need to give attention as well to what best enables us to understand today's culture, thus lessening the gap between aesthetic theory and practice... Highly recommended for an academic audience interested in cultural and aesthetic theory.-- (09/01/2012)
Sianne Ngai gives us once again a radiantly idiosyncratic study of that which we never thought to examine and that which we now understand to be crucial to our daily experience as social beings. Under Ngai's quick eye and deft hand, the zany, the cute, and the merely interesting reveal their pertinence for the history and historicity of aesthetic development, the intimacy between quotidian materiality and philosophic inquiry, and the collisions among modernity, art, labor, and performing bodies.--Anne A. Cheng, author of Second Skin
Sianne Ngai's new book is a major work of aesthetic theory: challenging a beauty-based aesthetics, closing the gap between aesthetic theory and artistic practice, and offering irreverent categories that work across disciplines and periods to make better sense of our cultural experience. Our Aesthetic Categories takes up the mantle of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, and here Ngai becomes the leading cultural critic of our day.--Jonathan Culler, Cornell University
This wonderfully original book (I hesitate to call it 'cute, zany, and interesting, ' but that wouldn't be wrong) invents fresh and incisive new categories for that tired old study called aesthetics. Maybe such categories could even transform the field itself, but they certainly transform the way we look at contemporary literature and culture (which Sianne Ngai knows with startling extensiveness), and maybe they will also end up transforming our outlook on the art of the past as well. Our Aesthetic Categories is in any case one of the most exciting new theoretical books to come along in some time.--Fredric Jameson, Duke University
With unparalleled originality, ambition, and insight, Sianne Ngai reimagines aesthetic theory for our time. Building on her work in Ugly Feelings, Ngai insists on the significance of minor, ordinary aesthetic experience. Our Aesthetic Categories displaces the centrality of beauty in aesthetics and illuminates the social processes at work in ubiquitous and taken-for-granted acts of judgment. This book will make you feel the present differently.--Heather Love, University of Pennsylvania