Thursday, November 1, 2012

Sianne Ngai's "Our Aesthetic Categories"

Sianne Ngai is Professor of English at Stanford University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, and reported the following:
Page 99 falls near the end of my chapter on the cute. Earlier I’ve suggested that as a commodity aesthetic, cuteness poses an interesting problem—you could even say, an embarrassment—for twentieth-century and contemporary American poetry. Not for all of poetry, of course, but certainly for a major vein preoccupied with what Hannah Arendt disparagingly calls the “small things” of everyday life. I then show how some poets reflexively take up poetry’s unusually fraught relation to cuteness in ways that make aspects of the commodity aesthetic newly visible, revealing it to be more complicated than we might otherwise assume. Poets like Gertrude Stein and Bob Perelman, for example, underscore how there’s a layer of aggression and even sadism involved in our experience of things as cute. Cute things seem to get even cuter when they seem injured or distressed, as critics like Lori Merish and Daniel Harris have also noted. Related to this is the fact that cute things also seem cutest when they are speechless or cannot talk; Hello Kitty, for instance, doesn’t even have a mouth. Muteness is thus a distinctive motif of the cute, as brought out in a unique way by poetry that tries in some fashion to engage with this mass-cultural, kitsch aesthetic rather than simply recoiling from it in horror.

On page 99 you’ll see me linking this cute motif to something the aesthetic philosopher Theodor Adorno says about poetry, which is that it is a kind of “nonconceptual” and therefore “silent” or noncommunicative language. Adorno connects this enigmatical muteness of poetry (its resistance to concepts) to something else he calls “mimesis” or “mimetic comportment.” This refers to the assimilation of a subject to an object (as opposed to, say, the subject’s subsumption of the object under a concept), which Adorno elsewhere likens to the way in which children play at being inanimate things. Cuteness, significantly, is a mimetic aesthetic too—think here of the way in puppies and babies push us into producing baby talk, forcing us to imitate their infantile qualities in the language of our aesthetic evaluation. What poetry brings out about the aestheticization of powerlessness that is cuteness—and its surprisingly powerful effects on language, in particular—can thus be used in turn, I argue, to help us better understand some of the most difficult passages about art and aesthetic experience in Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory.
Learn more about Our Aesthetic Categories at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue