Feminist Theory Reading Group: Sianne Ngai

So, we at my university, started a Feminist Theory Reading Group. Our mission: for faculty and Ph.D. candidates to meet & talk about a recent monograph on feminist theory. We aim to read a book each semester. Tonight, twelve of us met over wine and snacks to talk about Sianne Ngai's Our Aesthetic Categories.  

Here is a kind of summary of our conversation. It's sloppy, incomplete, misses all the joy of conviviality, all the texture of the personalities in the room jostling against each other, interrupting, and apologizing, but maybe, in spite of all that, it captures something about why it's fun, even in a stressful moment of the semester, to try to talk about something very challenging, brilliant, and innovative:

 

Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard 2012)
Zany, cute, interesting: Ngai again looks at familiar but not valorized categories and at mass-culture. The blurb doesn't sell it as feminist (thanks, Harvard!), but I believe her work is: at least Ugly Feelings was. LARB long piece on this. (Just linking: haven't read yet.) [AEF]
This sounds like it would be an enjoyable read. [CH]. Agreed. [MAM]

This was the only question on our list when we started our discussion & it's how we began:
In "The Zany Science," Ngai writes, "Indeed, while virtually all our current aesthetic categories, from the beautiful down to the cute, turn in various ways on the objecthood of objects or the thingness of things, our experience of zaniness is often that of azany person//" (193, italics mine). I'm curious about how this final aesthetic category most often describes a person (or character) rather than an object. What is at stake in describing someone as "zany" that might be different from the "cute" or "interesting" object? Does identifying someone as zany confer a kind of "objectness" onto that subject? If so, what impact does that have on our experience of the zany? [KMN]'

We moved quickly from this question to a challenging passage about subjectivity in the introduction. That led to a segue from the zany back to the cute, and the relationship between the cute and the beautiful. Where we lingered for a while: 
How is the cute different from the beautiful? The beautiful is a category that “reveals how the faculty of judgment…presupposes the existence of other humans” (239); it’s one that messes Burke up; it’s feminized.

We debated the ethics of reading transhistorically. Ngai is interested in the now, but what is the present? How much do we care that the periodization is "late capitalism" instead of, say, "post-1989."?

We also discussed some problems with her examples--mistakes or looseness in the discussion of Stein and some special selectivity in the examples from kawaii. Some of these demonstrated Ngai's deftness: it's the case that the cutest character in anime is also the most dangerous (Anthony passed around a panel of cute characters yelling "Eat Their *X%$#!@ Ovaries!!!"), so that fits Ngai's argument. However, it's also true that Murakami's art is not representative and is, in fact, particularly, ostentatiously meaningless.

We talked about how discussions of the cute don't include what's funny in Stein, in manga. Why leave out the funny? Is laughter an aesthetic response? Doesn't the cute help Ngai describe the changed relationship between art and commodity in late capitalism?

Does it matter that zany isn't a live category, isn't something we say or talk about? Ngai offers one answer, maybe, here:

  • “The interesting is culturally ubiquitous as a judgment but by no means easily or intuitively recognizable as an aesthetic style…the zany as a style of desperate playfulness is virtually everywhere but is strangely recessive as a term of judgment” (235).

But, as an answer, "strangely recessive" may be a euphemism for "my idea alone."

We had a moment of admiration for the ways in which the book is cool: for its ability to contain a 3-page footnote on Flashdance. For some, that coolness grates; for some, it inspires. Then, why isn't "the cool" one of these new aesthetic category?

The discussion on race was missing in ways that some of us missed, that others saw as an opening for future criticism. What, for example, would a doll with "cute" "squishy" features be if it was also black? Why doesn't Ngai discuss Harriet Mullin's race in her discussion of Mullin's revisions of Stein?

We connect Ngai's work to weak theory: cf. panel at MSA & Wai-Chee Dimock's work on weak theory. Where some advocates of weak theory seemed to be simply advocating the ambiguity of the essay, Ngai actually demonstrates the political power of demanding that we pause in a moment of indeterminacy, that oscillation where something cute excites feelings of both tenderness and aggression. 

In what sense is this a contribution to feminist theory? what is Ngai's contribution to feminist theory? We talked about the ways in which Ngai revives aesthetic theory with new categories that are feminine and feminized. About how the book is anti-nostalgic for older aesthetic forms, categories, and the New Left in general. How, the very "our" of the title claims a space for feminist theorists in high theory.

Then, just when the conversation seemed over, we got into a big, lively talk about the uncanny valley, cuteness, disgust and disability studies, wondering at the way in which we are attracted to cute robots but feel the terror of bodily difference in the face of a prosthetic hand.