“The commodity aesthetic of cuteness, the discursive aesthetic of the interesting, and the performative aesthetic of zaniness help us get at some of the most important social dynamics underlying life in late capitalist society today.”
February 7, 2013
The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Sianne Ngai’s new book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting.
This book makes a simple argument about the zany, the interesting, and the cute: that these three aesthetic categories, for all their marginality to aesthetic theory and to genealogies of postmodernism, are the ones in our current repertoire best suited for grasping how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism. This is because the zany, the interesting, and the cute index—and are thus each in a historically concrete way about—the system’s most socially binding processes: production, in the case of zaniness (an aesthetic about performing as not just artful play but affective labor); circulation, in the case of the interesting (an aesthetic about difference in the form of information and the pathways of its movement and exchange); and consumption, in the case of the cute (an aesthetic disclosing the surprisingly wide spectrum of feelings, ranging from tenderness to aggression, that we harbor toward ostensibly subordinate and unthreatening commodities). As sensuous, affective reflections of the ways in which contemporary subjects work, exchange, and consume (and as the cute and the zany in particular will show, in ways significantly mediated by gender, sexuality, and class), the commodity aesthetic of cuteness, the discursive aesthetic of the interesting, and the performative aesthetic of zaniness help us get at some of the most important social dynamics underlying life in late capitalist society today. No other aesthetic categories in our current repertoire speak to these everyday practices of production, circulation, and consumption in the same direct way.1
In this light it stands to reason that the zany, the cute, and the interesting are as ubiquitous in the postmodern literary anthology and museum of contemporary art as they are on the Internet and television. The vertiginous zaniness of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction and Ryan Trecartin’s videos, the cuteness of Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dotted phallus pillows and Matthea Harvey’s poetic homages to domestic objects like the sugar bowl, and the “merely interesting” serial, recursive, variation-based projects of Sol LeWitt and conceptual writer Robert Fitterman are only a few examples. But although their unique reference to production, circulation, and consumption provides the best explanation for their pervasiveness, the zany, the interesting, and the cute are important for the study of contemporary culture not simply because they index economic processes, but also because they give us insight into major problems in aesthetic theory that continue to inform the making, dissemination, and reception of culture in the present. These include the implications of the increasingly intimate relation between the autonomous artwork and the form of the commodity; the complex mixture of negative as well as positive affects resulting in the ambivalent nature of many of our aesthetic experiences; the ambiguous state of the avant-garde, which in a zombielike fashion persists even as its “disappearance or impossibility” is regarded as one of postmodernism’s constitutive features; the relevance of aesthetic to critical or other nonaesthetic judgments aimed at producing knowledge (or how one is permitted to link judgments based on subjective feelings of pleasure/displeasure to ones with claims to objective truth); the future of the long-standing idea of art as play as opposed to labor in a world where immaterial labor is increasingly aestheticized; and the “parergonal” relation between art and theoretical discourse itself, all the more pressured with the rise of an institutional culture of museums and curricula that has led art and criticism to internalize each other in historically unprecedented ways.2 These problems are raised directly and indirectly in theoretical writings by Nietzsche, Adorno, Kant, Hegel, Derrida, and others, but they have also become central to contemporary cultural practice in ways distinctively transformed and amplified by the conditions of postmodernity.3 Indeed, the zany, the interesting, and the cute seem to offer ways of negotiating these problems affectively, both at the formal, objective level of style (cuteness as a sensuous quality or appearance of objects) and at the discursive, subjective level of judgment (“cute” as a feeling-based evaluation or speech act, a particular way of communicating a complex mixture of feelings about an object to others and demanding that they feel the same).
The zany, the cute, and the interesting are linked to major representational practices that span across different media: comedy, in the case of the zany; romance, in the case of the cute; realism, in the case of the interesting. They are also linked to specific genres and forms. For example, it is easy to see how the commodity aesthetic of cuteness becomes a special issue for twentieth-century poetry, by way of a tendency within the genre that has made it widely, if not always correctly, associated with short, compact texts preoccupied with small, easy-to-handle things, from the plums in William Carlos Williams’s icebox and the charms in Frank O’Hara’s pockets to the assortment of neatly compartmentalized edibles in Lee Ann Brown’s “Cafeteria”: “Ice Tea / Cream corn / Fried okra / plus one meat.”4 Cuteness could thus serve as shorthand for what Hannah Arendt calls the “modern enchantment with ‘small things’… preached by early twentieth-century poetry in almost all European tongues,” which she also acerbically refers to as the “art of being happy… between dog and cat and flowerpot.”5 For Arendt, the “petite bonheur” of the cute is thus part of a larger cultural phenomenon, the expansion of the charismatically “irrelevant,” which she links to the decay of a genuinely public culture: “What the public realm considers irrelevant can have such an extraordinary and infectious charm that a whole people may adopt it as their way of life, without for that reason changing its essentially private character” (52). Yet as Arendt herself concedes, the cute/irrelevant object’s charm is powerful enough to be “infectious,” to a point at which, in an act of automatic mimesis similar to that induced by film’s sensational “body genres” (horror, melodrama, and pornography, which, as Linda Williams notes, compel their audiences to reenact the screams, sobs, and orgasms they see on screen), the admirer of the cute puppy or baby often ends up unconsciously emulating that object’s infantile qualities in the language of her aesthetic appraisal.6 We can thus see why Adorno makes such a point in “Lyric Poetry and Society” of singling out poems that depart from the genre’s more representative “delight in things close at hand” in order to resist the bourgeois subject’s desire to “reduce [them] to objects of fondling.”7
Revolving around the desire for an ever more intimate, ever more sensuous relation to objects already regarded as familiar and unthreatening, cuteness is not just an aestheticization but an eroticization of powerlessness, evoking tenderness for “small things” but also, sometimes, a desire to belittle or diminish them further. The aesthetic categories in this study thus do not refer only to a range of objects and objective phenomena (commodities, the act of consumption, and the feminized domestic sphere, in the case of cuteness; information, the circulation and exchange of discourse, and the bourgeois public sphere, in the case of the interesting; performance, affective labor, and the post-Fordist workplace, in the case of contemporary zaniness). By calling forth specific capacities for feeling and thinking as well as specific limitations on these capacities—a noticeably weaker or cooler version of curiosity, in the case of the interesting; an unusually intense and yet strangely ambivalent kind of empathy, in the case of the cute—they also play to and help complete the formation of a distinctive kind of aesthetic subject, gesturing also to the modes of intersubjectivity that this aesthetic subjectivity implies.8
Since cute things evoke a desire in us not just to lovingly molest but also to aggressively protect them, modern poetry might be regarded as cute in another problematic sense. The smallness of most poems in comparison with novels and films, in which the proportion of quotable component to the work as a whole (the paragraph or the shot sequence) is always substantially lower, has made poetry the most aggressively copyright protected of all the genres and thus in a certain sense the genre most aggressively protected from criticism, since anyone wanting to refer directly to the language he or she is analyzing will often have to pay a substantial fee. Susan Stewart’s wry caveat in the preface and acknowledgments of Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (“Like anyone who writes on poetic forms, I have been restricted… by the availability of permissions for reproduction”) will thus be familiar to any critic who has tried to write on the genre that copyright laws have indirectly helped define as unusually “tender” speech.9
Poetry’s complicated and ambivalent relation to an aesthetic that celebrates the diminutive and vulnerable becomes all the more problematic in the case of the avant-garde, which has historically defined itself in opposition to everything for which cuteness stands. Yet as reflected in experimental texts ranging from Gertrude Stein’s tribute to lesbian domesticity in Tender Buttons to Harryette Mullen’s homage to its sections on “Objects” and “Food” in her explorations of the language of women’s fashion and groceries in Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, it is clear that the avant-garde has had as much stake in the issues raised by this aesthetic of familiar “small things” as it has had in the powerful experiences of shock, rarity, and/or estrangement that we more readily associate with its projects. The cuteness avant-garde poetry finds itself grappling with thus gives us surprising leverage on the ambiguous status of the contemporary avant-garde in general, and on the closeness between the artwork and the commodity. For it is not just that cuteness is an aesthetic oriented toward commodities. As Walter Benjamin implies, something about the commodity form itself already seems permeated by its sentimentality: “If the soul of the commodity which Marx occasionally mentions in jest existed, it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would have to see in everyone the buyer in whose hand and house it wants to nestle.”10
If the commodity aesthetic of cuteness is warm and fuzzy, the epistemological aesthetic of the interesting is cool, both in the sense of the ironic detachment Friedrich Schlegel attributed to the “interessante,” an aesthetic of eclectic difference and novelty embraced by his circle as part of a larger romantic agenda calling for literature to become reflective or philosophical,11 and in the technocratic, informatic sense Alan Liu conveys in his book on postmodern knowledge work.12 Part of the initial turn in eighteenth-century literature to the ordinary and the idiosyncratic (that is, to minor, not-too-deviant differences) that would prepare the ground for the rise of nineteenth-century realism, the interesting would also be linked to the new genre of bourgeois drame by Denis Diderot and to the novel by Schlegel and Henry James before enjoying a resurgence with conceptual art and its aesthetic of information a century later. Always connected to the relatively small surprise of information or variation from an existing norm, the interesting marks a tension between the unknown and the already known and is generally bound up with a desire to know and document reality.13 It is therefore also, as Susan Sontag suggests, an aesthetic closely bound up with the history of photography.14 Troubled by how the popular use of “interesting” as a notoriously weak evaluation tends to promote a general “indiscrimination” in the viewing public, Sontag trenchantly notes that “the practice of photography is now identified with the idea that everything in the world could be made interesting through the camera.”15 If it has become “not altogether wrong to say that there is no such thing as a bad photograph—only less interesting [ones],” the reason why photography constitutes “one of the chief means for producing that quality ascribed to things and situations which erases these distinctions” is that “the photographic purchase on the world, with its limitless production of notes on reality,” makes everything “homologous” or comparable to others of its same kind or type.16 We can thus glimpse the connection between late twentieth-century conceptual art—famously obsessed with acts of documentation, classification, and the presentation of evidence—and a range of realist, print-cultural practices from the previous century. Indeed, conceptual art’s “crucial innovation,” as Liz Kotz suggests, was its unprecedented pairing of photography with the language of ordinary/everyday observation: the “notes on reality” appealing in different ways to successive generations of novelists, from Theodore Dreiser to Alain Robbe-Grillet to Geraldine Kim.17
From Schlegel on “die interessante Poesie” to James on the novel, the interesting thus has a surprising pedigree in high literary criticism and theory that the other aesthetic categories in this study lack.18 Indeed, we find one of the modern aesthetic’s most uncompromising advocates in Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann’s postwar novel of ideas based on Adorno’s theoretical writings on music (including atonal music). As Mann’s Schoenberg-like composer puts it, explicitly pitting the aesthetic of the interesting over and against what he disparagingly calls “animal warmth”: “Law, every law, has a chilling effect, and music has so much warmth anyhow, stable warmth, cow warmth, I’d like to say, that she can stand all sorts of regulated cooling off.”19 Adrian Leverkühn’s theory of a modern art coolly “regulated” by rational principles (much like the dialogue-driven “novel of ideas” itself) not only looks forward to the antigestural, systems-based art of the 1960s but also directly echoes the praise of the interpenetration of art and theory, and the advocacy of detachment over enthusiasm as the proper artistic and critical attitude, promoted by Schlegel and other theorists of the “interessante” in eighteenth-century Germany. Indeed, Leverkühn’s way of justifying his preference for his coolly regulated aesthetic, “Art would like to stop being pretence and play, it would like to become knowledge,” calls for the same rapprochement between art and science pursued by Schlegel in conjunction with his advocacy of “interesting” modern poetry: “The more poetry becomes science, the more it also becomes art. If poetry is to become art, if the artist is to have a thorough understanding and knowledge of his ends and means… then the poet will have to philosophize about his art.20
Always registering a tension between the particular and generic (and thus raising the question of the role of generic concepts in aesthetic experience overall), the interesting’s epistemological claims—its desire to know reality by comparing one thing with another, or by lining up what one realizes one doesn’t know against what one knows already—have made it especially prominent in genres invested in the overall look or feel of scientific rationality: from the realist novel in the nineteenth century, with its social taxonomies informed by the proliferation of new scientific and academic discourses, to postwar conceptual art, formally as well as thematically preoccupied with technology and systems. An extension of what Irving Sandler pejoratively called the “Cool Art” of the 1960s, the decade’s first wave of system-based painting “characterized by calculation, impersonality, and boredom,”21 conceptual art would in fact be eventually praised by critics for being “merely interesting” and even for being boring, as in an early essay by Barbara Rose linking conceptualism’s serial, “ABC” aesthetic to that of Robbe-Grillet and his “theory of the French objective novel.”22
More specifically, as an effort to reconcile the idiosyncratic with the systemic, the interesting has been associated with genres with an unusual investment in theory. If, as Amanda Anderson suggests, the “novelistic tradition, especially in its more intellectualist formations” is fundamentally “interested in the relation between ideas and life, or how one might live theory,” we can see why James famously singled out interesting as the proper aesthetic standard for this discursively hybrid genre: one keen on “imagining the rigorous critique of custom and convention as a way of life; mediating between the moral life of individuals and a long sociological or historical view of communities and societies; and engaging the relation between existence and doctrine.”23 The novel’s investment in the tension between life and theory is perhaps best epitomized by its major innovation, free indirect discourse, and its oscillation between first- and third-person perspectives respectively aligned with the “aspirations of a socially minded moral participant” and a “bleak[er] systems view.”24 It is precisely this tension between individual and system that undergirds the interesting and explains why it also plays such a central role in conceptual art, a body of work similarly preoccupied with the modern relationship between individuation and standardization, and committed to exploring the tension between “existence and doctrine” by staging various clashes between perceptual and conceptual systems. As Mikhail Epstein argues, the judgment of “interesting” is thus an effort to “bridge the gap between reason and surprise, at once rationalizing the improbable and extending the limits of rationality.”25
In contrast to the rational coolness of the interesting, the aesthetic of nonstop acting or doing that is zaniness is hot: hot under the collar, hot and bothered, hot to trot. Highlighting the affect, libido, and physicality of an unusually beset agent, these idioms underscore zaniness’s uniqueness as the only aesthetic category in our repertoire about a strenuous relation to playing that seems to be on a deeper level about work. When brought out by the post-Fordist, service-economy zaniness of performers like Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy and Richard Pryor in The Toy, the zany more specifically evokes the performance of affective labor—the production of affects and social relationships—as it comes to increasingly trouble the distinction between work and play. The formal dynamics of this seemingly lighthearted but strikingly vehement aesthetic, in which the potential for injury always seems right around the corner, are thus most sharply visible in the arts of live and recorded performance—dance, Happenings, walkabouts, reenactments, game shows, video games—and in the arts of rhythm and movement in particular. Yet as I argue in Chapter 3, “The Zany Science,” contemporary zaniness is an aesthetic more explicitly about the politically ambiguous convergence of cultural and occupational performing under what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call the new “connexionist” spirit of capitalism: the dominant ideology of a capitalism that has absorbed and adjusted to the “artistic critique” of the 1960s—but also, as Nancy Fraser stresses, the second-wave feminist critique of the gendered division of labor—by now encouraging workers, through a rhetoric of “networking,” to bring their abilities to communicate, socialize, and even play to work.26
1 What I mean by “circulation” in this book—the technologically-mediated movement and dissemination of information, discourse, and commodities—overlaps but does not entirely coincide with what Marx means by the term. For Marx circulation is sale, the ceaselessly renewed process in which commodities are exchanged for money and money is exchanged for commodities. Neither production nor consumption, circulation is the “process in which commodities are transformed into prices: their realization as prices.” For this reason, “not every form of commodity exchange, e.g. barter, payment in kind, feudal services, etc., constitutes circulation. To get circulation, two things are required above all: Firstly: the precondition that commodities are prices; Secondly: not isolated acts of exchange, but a circle of exchange, a totality of the same, in constant flux, proceeding more or less over the entire surface of society; a system of acts of exchange.” In other words, for Marx, circulation is also the market, a “circle of exchange” mediated specifically by money as its medium or instrument. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin, 1973), 186, 187.
By “circulation” I do mean to imply (as Marx does) a “system of acts of exchange,” where “exchange [appears to stand] between [production and consumption] as formal social movement” (ibid., 89). However, I also mean the term to refer to the kind of movement made possible by systems of transportation and communication, which for Marx actually belong to the sphere of production. For more on Marx’s “reasons for classifying the transport industry in the realm of the production of value and surplus value, rather than in that of circulation,” see Ernest Mandel’s introduction to Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 2, trans. David Fernbach (New York: Penguin, 1992), 44–45. See also Marx, Capital, vol. 2, 226–227.
For Marx, the structure of exchange/circulation is ultimately determined by the “structure of production” (Grundrisse, 99). This, however, does not preclude Marx from speaking of an independent process of circulation. (Indeed, Marx devotes the entire second volume of Capital to “The Process of Circulation of Capital” precisely in order to show how only commodity production, and not the realm of circulation or exchange, can create surplus value for capital as a whole [see Mandel, introduction, 42].) Marx writes, “The conclusion we reach is not that production, distribution, exchange, and consumption are identical, but that they all form the members of a totality, distinctions within a unity. Production predominates not only over itself, in the antithetical definition of production, but over the other moments as well… A definite production thus determines a definite consumption, distribution and exchange as well as definite relations between these different moments.” Marx then immediately adds the following: “Admittedly, however, in its one-sided form, production is itself determined by the other moments. For example if the market, i.e. the sphere of exchange, expands, then production grows in quantity and the divisions between its different branches become deeper. A change in distribution changes production, e.g. concentration of capital, different distribution of the population between town and country, etc. Finally, the needs of consumption determine production. Mutual interaction takes place between the different moments” (Grundrisse, 99–100).
On circulation as a “cultural process with its own forms of abstraction, evaluation, and constraint, which are created by the interactions between specific types of circulating forms and the interpretive communities built around them,” see Benjamin Lee and Edward LiPuma, “Cultures of Circulation,” Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 191–213, 192. For an example of Marxist geography that does in fact refer to systems of transportation and communication as “circulation,” see David Harvey, The Conditions of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 23.
3 I mention just a few texts that take up these questions in a particularly focused way: art’s relationship to the commodity: Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); the relationship between art and theory or criticism: Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974); Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), especially “The End of Art,” 81–115; and Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2007); the effects of the institutionalized basis of artistic production, circulation, and reception on this same relation: Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996); and Philip Fisher, Making and Effacing Art: Modern American Art in a Culture of Museums (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); the ambiguous status of the contemporary avant-garde: Daniel Herwitz, Making Theory/Constructing Art: On the Authority of the Avant-Garde (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); and Paul Mann, The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1991); the link or abyss between aesthetic and nonaesthetic judgments: Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981); and Jameson, Postmodernism.
4 William Carlos Williams,“This Is Just to Say,” in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, vol. 1, 1909–1939 (New York: New Directions, 1991), 372; Frank O’Hara, “Personal Poem,” in Lunch Poems (San Francisco: City Lights, 1964), 32–33; Lee Ann Brown, “Cafeteria,” in Polyverse (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Books, 2000), 25.
10 Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: New Left Books, 1973), 55; cited in Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 32.
11 See Friedrich Schlegel, On the Study of Greek Poetry, trans. and ed. Stuart Barnett (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001); and Kathleen M. Wheeler, ed., German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: The Romantic Ironists and Goethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 32– 40 and 46– 47.
13 On the interesting as the “measure of tension” between known and unknown, or between “the alterity of the object and reason’s capacity to integrate it,” see Mikhail Epstein, “The Interesting,” trans. Igor Klyukanov, Qui Parle 18 (2009): 75– 88, 79.
19 Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1992), 67. Later in the same conversation, “interest” is described as “love from which the animal warmth has been withdrawn” (68).
21 Irving Sandler, “The New Cool-Art,” Art in America 53.1 (February 1965): 99– 101. See also Lawrence Alloway, “Systemic Painting,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 37–60, 59. Sandler’s phrase was widely picked up by critics and artists as a signifier for postwar art in general. As James Meyer notes, an exhibition titled Cool Art—1967 was held at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art (Ridgefield, CT) in 1968. See Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 279n.17. In 2009 an exhibit called New York Cool: Paintings and Sculpture from the New York University Art Collection traveled to various sites around the country, including the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (April 17–July 19, Brunswick, ME) and the Hunter Museum of American Art (August 23–October 25, New York).
22 Barbara Rose, “ABC Art,” in Battcock, Minimal Art, 292; originally published in Art in America 53.5 (October/November 1965): 57–69. For a prescient analysis of boredom and interest in the art of the 1960s that focuses on Rose’s essay, as well as on criticism by Donald Judd and Michael Fried, see Frances Colpitt, “The Issue of Boredom: Is It Interesting?” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 43.4 (Summer 1985): 359–365. A longer version of this essay appears in Colpitt, Minimal Art: The Critical Perspective (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993), 101–132.
26 Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2005), 132; Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History,” New Left Review 56 (March–April 2009): 97–117. For both Fraser and Boltanski and Chiapello, the fact that capitalism finds itself forced to adjust to these critiques in the first place points as much to the critique’s power as to its susceptibility to cooptation.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher from OUR AESTHETIC CATEGORIES: ZANY, CUTE, INTERESTING by Sianne Ngai, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.