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An Inquiry into the Terms of Taste: Sianne Ngai's Our Aesthetic Categories

By Harriet Staff

ngai book

Another awesome review from the Los Angeles Review of Books, whose Rebecca Ariel Porte writes about Sianne Ngai's newest book, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard University Press 2012), which delivers "an inquiry into the terms and origins of taste." More:

For Ngai, an aesthetic judgment always begins with feeling, the fine gradations of affect inspired by an encounter with a photograph or a line of poetry that we may later justify through intellect. If nothing else, Ngai’s attention to the cute, the interesting, and the zany (she devotes a longish chapter to each), encourages us to concentrate on how everyday emotions can become the beginnings of aesthetic judgment. A feeling of undifferentiated pleasure might, for example, give rise to a judgment like “beautiful” or “elegant.” Displeasure, meanwhile, might cause us to think “how ugly!” Ngai’s categories rely on affective responses we often experience as negative, weak, or muddy — a diluted form of wonder in the case of the interesting, suspicion and vicarious exhaustion in the case of the zany; in the case of the cute, mingled protectiveness, aggression, and disgust.

I was alert, as I read Our Aesthetic Categories, to any casual use of “zany,” “cute,” or “interesting.” I became attuned to them, in the way one does after learning the meaning of a new word. Suddenly, they seemed to be everywhere, these judgments of trivial and conflicted feeling. This speaks, perhaps, to Ngai’s prescience, but also (it is not an entirely comfortable thought) to what may be a contemporary cultural penchant for dealing with complex emotions by funneling them through the seemingly mild vocabulary of our communal aesthetic language. Everything was cute: cat macros, anthropomorphic comets, baby carrots. Everything was interesting: bioluminescent fungi, Sheila Heti, The Clock. Ngai’s final category was somewhat more elusive until a friend described one of Yayoi Kusama’s corybantically polka-dotted surfaces as zany. If it’s true that we launder our emotions (as money is laundered) through aesthetic judgments like these, disguising our messy, unpredictable feelings in words that enter the shared discourse cleanly and unobtrusively, it’s also true that these apparently clean, unobtrusive words may be able to help us analyze the tangled sentiments they mask.

Ngai centers her argument on the judgments of taste we make in everyday speech. Our Aesthetic Categories is as much about the process of arriving at verdicts like “cute,” “zany,” and “interesting” as it is about the stylistic conventions that inspire us to make those judgments. Ngai is particularly interested in how these judgments are part of ordinary public discourse. Judgments of taste, she reminds us, are “ways of relating to other subjects and the larger social arrangements these ways of relating presuppose.” That is, aesthetic judgments are always, to a degree, about the impulse to share what we feel and then to justify it.

Book reviews, for example (and this one is no exception), are a byproduct of the compulsion to aesthetic evaluation. They are always a social phenomenon in the way they ask both writers and readers to enter into a communal relationship and help to establish the subject of the review in a wider network of “social arrangements.” Readers often look to reviews because we want to know how our impressions of any given work compare with the impressions of others, how the work “acts” to form a society of perspectives.

Usually, we also want to know whether a book is worth our time, how to value it, whether it’s good. By this, we often mean something like “will it be to my taste?” We want, in short, some kind of aesthetic judgment. This is not to say that reviews might not make, or readers ask for, other sorts of judgments (moral judgments, for example). It’s not even to say that taste-based judgments can’t coexist with other kinds of judgments. In fact, they usually do. When it comes to art, for example, evaluations like “good” and “bad” are almost always aesthetic evaluations rather than moral ones, though they are often connected to (and sometimes depend upon) evaluations of the artwork’s ethical or political commitments. . . .

Seriously, read it all here.

Originally Published: October 31st, 2012