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Cabinet Talks to Sianne Ngai About States of Weakness!
Poet, professor, scholar, and cuteness expert Sianne Ngai has been interviewed for Cabinet Magazine–lucky us! Ngai is “interested in states of weakness: in ‘minor’ or non-cathartic feelings that index situations of suspended agency; in trivial aesthetic categories grounded in ambivalent or even explicitly contradictory feelings.” “Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness,” she says. Go on, go on:
It hinges on a sentimental attitude toward the diminutive and/or weak, which is why cute objects—formally simple or noncomplex, and deeply associated with the infantile, the feminine, and the unthreatening—get even cuter when perceived as injured or disabled. So there’s a sadistic side to this tender emotion, as people like Daniel Harris have noted. The prototypically cute object is the child’s toy or stuffed animal.
Cuteness is also a commodity aesthetic, with close ties to the pleasures of domesticity and easy consumption. As Walter Benjamin put it: “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.” Cuteness could also be thought of as a kind of pastoral or romance, in that it indexes the paradoxical complexity of our desire for a simpler relation to our commodities, one that tries in a utopian fashion to recover their qualitative dimension as use.
Ngai differentiates between cuteness and the zany:
While the cute is thus about commodities and consumption, the zany is about performing. Intensely affective and highly physical, it’s an aesthetic of nonstop action that bridges popular and avant-garde practice across a wide range of media: from the Dada cabaret of Hugo Ball to the sitcom of Lucille Ball. You could say that zaniness is essentially the experience of an agent confronted by—even endangered by—too many things coming at her quickly and at once. Think here of Frogger, Kaboom!, or Pressure Cooker, early Atari 2600 video games in which avatars have to dodge oncoming cars, catch falling bombs, and meet incoming hamburger orders at increasing speeds. Or virtually any Thomas Pynchon novel, bombarding protagonist and reader with hundreds of informational bits which may or may not add up to a conspiracy.
Another minor state is the “interesting.” Adam Jasper asks her more directly: “In what ways does ‘interesting’ conform to, and differ from, the traditional aesthetic categories such as the beautiful and the sublime?” To which Ngai responds: “The difference is that the blankness or indeterminacy of the judgment of interesting seems to explicitly invite us to fill in the blank with the concept later. The interesting is an explicitly epistemological aesthetic, in a way that the beautiful is not.” After talking a bit about Kant and “the ubiquity of the weak judgment in everyday conversation, and how it gets used to implicitly invite others to demand, in turn, that the person who has just proclaimed something interesting take the next step of explaining why,” Jasper and Ngai get at poetry and the visual:
Could you tell us more about what Schlegel had to say about the interesting? Is there an overlap between the interesting and the ironic?
In a 1797 essay called “On the Origins of Greek Poetry,” Schlegel explicitly sets the interesting, which he associates with the literature of modernity, in direct opposition to the beautiful poetry of the Greeks. While die schöne Poesie is objectively rule-bound, universal, and disinterested, die interessante Poesie is subjective and idiosyncratic, open to interminable particularization because no laws govern its determination by any content in particular. So here is the historical link between the maker of interesting art and the figure of the romantic ironist: both are defined by the lack of attachment to any particular worldview, and thus by an ability to “take on any subject-matter or artistic style” (as Hegel put it, negatively—he was not a fan of irony, nor of the Schlegels). In a way that may come as a surprise to many, the aesthetic of the interesting thus has a fairly lofty pedigree in high theory and literary criticism.
There is something intriguing about the gesture associated with the interesting: pointing. Pointing at something interesting is both vague and precise, and implies that there is more to see than can be seen, that we have recognized something portentous but at the same time are not sure what it is. The gesture is a promissory note, an assertion that this thing will reward further inspection. Does the mute and indicative nature of pointing itself reveal the nature of the interesting?
Yes! No one brings this out better than John Baldessari, which is why his A Person Was Asked to Point (1969) played such a central role in my thinking about how the interesting functions as a specifically narrative or diachronic aesthetic—one that unlike the instantaneous thunderbolt of the sublime, tends to unfold in a serial fashion, over time.
Linked always to the relatively small surprise of information, or the perception of minor differences from an existing norm, the interesting is generally bound up with a desire to know and document reality. So we can see why Susan Sontag suggests that it is an aesthetic closely bound up with both the nineteenth-century novel and the history of photography. In On Photography, troubled by how the use of “interesting” as a notoriously weak evaluation tends to promote a general “indiscrimination,” 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.” If it is “not altogether wrong to say that there is no such thing as a bad photograph—only less interesting [ones],” the reason why photography becomes “one of the chief means for producing that quality ascribed to things and situations which erases these distinctions” is because “the photographic purchase on the world, with its limitless production of notes on reality,” makes everything comparable to others of its same kind or type.
We can thus glimpse the connection between late twentieth-century conceptualism—famously obsessed with acts of documentation, classification, and the presentation of evidence—and a range of realist 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,” and on social types in particular, central also to novelists ranging from Henry James to Georges Perec. As James famously said, “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.”
Yes, the whole interview is that…you know. Read it all here.