Review: Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting

Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Sianne Ngai. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. xi + 333.

Does Sianne Ngai’s second book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012), belong to the burgeoning field of affect studies? Ugly Feelings (2005), Ngai’s first book, has become a canonical text in affect theory, appreciating and giving detailed attention to what Ngai calls “ugly” and “minor” feelings. The title of Ngai’s latest work, however, seems to self-identify as a study on aesthetics. While this book is invested in arguing for three specific aesthetic categories, the method Ngai uses for understanding our relation to these categories and their embedded quality in twentieth century culture is primarily affective. That is, Ngai chooses her aesthetic categories, the zany, the cute, and the interesting precisely because they condition our experience of aesthetics under late capitalism. She claims that the zany is an aesthetic of production, the interesting an aesthetic of circulation, and the cute an aesthetic of consumption. While Ngai is clearly devoted to the development of these aesthetic categories as “our” categories under late capitalism’s hyper-aestheticized world, she is also diligent to explain how affect plays a key role in how they resonate, even if they do so in unclear and muted ways. In Our Aesthetic Categories, Ngai focuses less on building upon affect theory than Ugly Feelings; however, by approaching the affective via cultural and forcefully Marxist critiques using the zany, the cute, and the interesting, Our Aesthetic Categories provides a window into affective critique that is not as psychoanalytic as Ngai’s previous work. Ngai’s latest book might not seem like it has a lot to offer affect studies, however, close examination of Ngai’s methods unlocks new approaches for affect studies.

Ngai switches from the “ugly” to the “trivial” to critique the aestheticization of labor by working out the link between contemporary art theory and contemporary affects. Consistent with her study of minor feelings, the aesthetic categories Ngai pursues here are ones with muted and often complicated affective resonances. She describes the “aesthetic experiences” of the zany, the cute, and the interesting as “the low, often hard-to-register flicker of affect accompanying our recognition of minor differences from a norm” (18). Ultimately, these aesthetic categories and their affective flickers allow Ngai to put forth the claim that these seemingly inconsequential experiences point to a condition of modern reality: “a deficit of power, which is significantly not the same as the suspension of power” (18). Indeed, Ngai finds this deficit significant because it places these aesthetics as all too intimate with their affects of powerlessness and weakness. Ngai writes that “cute and zany objects present themselves as entirely available, as their commercial and erotic connotations make explicit: ‘Snuggle/play with me!’” (18). In different, and sometimes contradicting ways, the zany, the cute, and the interesting make clear the connection between the weak affective influence of the aesthetic and our relationship to production, circulation, and consumption.

Ngai begins her specific arguments on the aesthetic categories with the cute in chapter one, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde.” Here, Ngai brings J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words into dialogue with Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment to make an argument on how “aesthetic judgments are precisely judgments based on feelings as opposed to principles or concepts”; she argues that the affective spectrum for these judgments needs more critical attention (as well as respect) because they point to “relative weaknesses and/or power of the intensities underlying” our aesthetic judgments and the conditions grounding those judgments as weak or strong (57). Ngai argues for “cuteness” as one of our aesthetic categories because it indexes feelings of powerlessness in relation to objects and art in the twentieth century. Indeed, Ngai calls the cute a “diminutive aesthetic: one that epitomizes the minorness of not just ‘minor aesthetic categories’ but arguably all art in an age of high-tech simulacra and media spectacles” (59). As the chapter works through examples ranging from a frog-shaped baby bath toy to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Ngai complicates the presumed simplicity and infantile nature of the cute by calling attention to affect – to the way cuteness seduces by being so unthreatening (thus needing our mothering) and then alarms by making us feel manipulated. Ngai asks: “How are we to read the unusual readiness with which cute reserves into its opposite? Is it a sign of the aesthetic’s internal instability, or how the experience of cuteness often seems to lead immediately to feelings of manipulation and betrayal?” (86). Ngai’s implied response is tied with the book’s Marxist bent: that the cute, in its ability to produce a desire of nearness simultaneously produces a failed response of differentiation. The failure to differentiate from the powerless commercial (or even high art) object transfers an affect of powerlessness to the viewer of the art. Consequently, Ngai’s Marxist framework produces a mechanics of affect with binaristic products.

Ngai’s second chapter, “Merely Interesting,” meditates on the historical use of the “interesting” as well as on its affective work as an aesthetic category. Ngai unpacks interesting as an aesthetic judgment mixing feelings of both pleasure and displeasure as well as dependency and circulation. What is perhaps most insightful about Ngai’s claims is her articulation of the interesting’s association with empiricism – “the judgment always seems underpinned by a claim, if not necessarily weak, affective intensity whose minimalism is somehow understood to secure its link to ratiocinative cognition” – despite its problematic relationship with evidence – she explains how difficult it is to provide evidence to support one’s judgment of the aesthetic as interesting (112-113). That is to say, the interesting conjoins the cognitive with the affective. Ngai explains that the interesting stages a conflict between “conceptual knowledge and sensory perception” and “places us in an affective relationship to the fact that our not knowing something, encodes an analogous clash between knowledge and feeling” (165). This aesthetic experience’s amalgamation of responses creates a complex of emotions including excitement and irritation. While this chapter is the least affect-oriented, Ngai’s thoughts on the interesting provide a model for exploring the relationship between affect and cognition.

Ngai’s chapter on the zany, “The Zany Science,” advances this aesthetic category as embodying post-Fordist production. Zany is affective in being humorous; however, unlike the cute, it is not an affect to which one is naturally drawn. Instead, because of the way it provokes unsettling feelings of danger and losing control, Ngai suggests that the zany is an aesthetic that can only be enjoyed at a distance and through characters. Ngai’s interests in aesthetics, affect, and Marxist critique really come together in this final chapter as she explains how an aesthetic depicting late-capitalist work demands an emotionalization and concurrent feminization of labor, while blurring the line between toil and play, doing and performing. Ngai finds the perfect example in the character Lucy Ricardo from the television series I Love Lucy. Her reading of Lucy highlights the zany as a literally embodied aesthetic; one that makes us feel unsettled by the worker’s lack of control over her own labor. Ultimately, as an aesthetic and an affect, zany suggests the instability caused by capitalist forces.

Our Aesthetic Categories significantly contributes to affect theory by offering a model for thinking about the relationship between affect and aesthetics as well as the ways in which the two become products of social circumstance. In the move from Ugly Feelings to Our Aesthetic Categories, Ngai moves from Freud and Foucault to Marx and Adorno, creating a method of affect critique that is tied less to psychoanalysis and more to materialism. Additionally, Ngai’s ambition to take on indefinite affects, as well as their simultaneity and contradictoriness, opens new ways of thinking about how the consumption, circulation, and production of affect lead to assemblages productively embodied in art in an ongoing dialectical and mimetic relationship. Ngai’s focus on the zany, the cute, and the interesting adds to our understanding of minor affects; however, one affect that seems prevalent in Ngai’s work yet still needing further development is “ambivalence.” At the beginning of the introduction, Ngai suggests that “increasingly intimate relations” of late capitalism have consequences including “the complex mixture of negative as well as positive affects resulting in the ambivalent nature of many of our aesthetic experiences” (2). Given Ngai’s substantial discussions of ugly and trivial feelings, multiple affects like ambivalence, apathy, and even doubt might perhaps warrant further study as these affects also allude to the complex nature of contemporary aesthetic and affective experience.

Jill Fennell