No 26.

Sianne Ngai

in conversation with Alec Recinos

Sianne Ngai’s work bridges cultural studies and critical theory to delve into affects and aesthetic forms that often evade the eye of the academy. In her books Ugly Feelings (2005), Our Aesthetic Categories (2012), and most recently Theory of the Gimmick (2020), Ngai catches the kernels of potential held in seemingly marginal feelings (from envy to “stuplimity”) and aesthetic judgements (like cute and interesting), and expands them to illustrate how these everyday objects of study lead to a greater understanding of contemporary capitalist form. In the process, she weaves together ostensibly disparate thinkers, works of high art, and objects of pop culture in a way that is unexpected, compelling, and frankly, quite fun.

I was excited to speak with Sianne not only because of the personal impact and influence of her thought, but also because of the way she resolutely affirms the political implications of aesthetic form and judgement. Far from a parochial navel-gazing activity within the ivory tower or white cube, aesthetics and critical judgement—and their attendant sociality—index essential truths of our time. This interview was conducted in December 2021.

AR

To kick things off, I wanted to talk about your published works. The focus tends to be on minor and quotidian topics—whether that's the unprestigious affects of Ugly Feelings, the vernacular aesthetic categories of Our Aesthetic Categories, or most recently, the gimmick, which you oppose to what is probably today's most privileged aesthetic: the sublime. What draws you to these areas of research?

SN

There's a long tradition in feminist criticism of being attentive to things that other people don't take seriously. I think it's also partly due to being a person of color in the United States. You get used to reflecting on everyday micro-social affective phenomena, on who else is noticing it with you, on who isn’t, and why.

There is this great quotation from [Theodor W.] Adorno in An Introduction to Dialectics—I love reading his lectures to undergrads because they’re so clear and so accessible and so fun—where he says, ladies and gentlemen: we live in a world where everything is reified or compartmentalized in a way that makes it fundamentally difficult to see how, say, an aesthetic form and a financial form might in fact be branches of a single process or unity.  At the same time, making things even more complicated, there's an objectivity to the separations, which get materialized in all kinds of structures and practices. Discontinuity is the unity of capitalist society. So dialectics is the name for a kind of cultural analysis that attempts to think connection and disconnection at the same time: an incredibly difficult thing to do. But one of the great things about this situation, Adorno points out—and it is one of many suddenly lighthearted swerves in his writing—is that you can start thinking about capitalist society at really any point. Even starting in the most oblique place will get you to the center soon enough, and doing so will help you see certain things more clearly than if you had started off from more established categories.

I have felt this to be deeply true, in particular with Our Aesthetic Categories. At the beginning, I was zeroing in on the contrast between morally and theologically prestigious categories like the  beautiful and sublime, and the much more equivocal judgments and experiences I wanted to write about. But I very quickly realized that these judgments and experiences—the cute, the interesting, the zany—were in fact not marginal, but rather entrenched in and pointing to the most basic and socially-binding activities of capitalist life: the consumption, circulation, and production of commodities. Which are all interlinked phases in the overarching process of capitalist valorization.

Like, from whose perspective is the interesting marginal? This is a spontaneously affective judgment you will hear every day—and it’s ubiquitous precisely because it is equivocal. The entire internet—from Tik Tok and Twitch to markets for buying and selling NFTs—seems to be powered by cuteness and zaniness. I started to realize that the only perspective from which categories like these might seem marginal is the philosophy of art and aesthetics, which simply highlights the parochialism of that discourse.

So the categories are not in fact marginal. And on top of this: they offer insight into questions that continue to be central to aesthetic theory—that is, questions about aesthetic judgment/experience as a whole—in a much more clarifying way than the categories traditionally used to approach it.

Take the example of the interesting. It is a conceptually “blank” and affectively minimal judgment. This is what has made it a target of ridicule, by [Martin] Heidegger most famously—he notes that when people say “interesting,” they actually mean “boring”—and then [Slavoj] Žižek copies him and makes the same joke. But then you start to realize that the conceptual indeterminacy of the interesting is what [Immanuel] Kant is trying to get at when he defines beauty as pleasure without a concept, or as an affective registration of “mere” form or difference that has no specific meaning assigned to it (yet). And so the conceptlessness of the interesting illustrates something about aesthetic experience more broadly. Kant used beauty to theorize it, but I think the interesting helps us see the point he was making with much more precision.


AR

It's really interesting to think about that, and especially to hear it coming from someone like Adorno, who is typically thought of as so focused on the avant garde in art and music and so on. In addition to the objects of your research, do you think that there's a need to look for more oblique or unexpected methods as well?

For example, in the past you've spoken about the way that you work as being somewhat uncategorizable, and in the The White Review, you said that you've been referred to as too philosophical for cultural studies and too cultural studies for philosophy. What led you to develop this way of thinking?

SN

I have recently come to the surprising realization that I don't enjoy reflecting on method as much as the critics I like reading. Lauren Berlant and I would talk about this a lot. In some ways, my “method” is pretty familiar: Marxist thinking, informed by feminist thought and critical race theory. So in an academic context, I think it's actually unexceptional.

Lauren by contrast was much more experimental in pushing the bounds of what counts as theory. I remember, we would sometimes have these funny arguments—they were the kind of friend who would challenge you all the time—where I'd finally be like, “Look, I just want to do this thing and I don't want to think too much about it.”

This is mainly because I’m impatient. But maybe also because for me method isn't separable from content, and what people sense as different in my work ultimately just boils down to content: what is being written about—say, an equivocal aesthetic indexing something about gender and labor—and what that simple determination implicitly excludes—an interest in aesthetic autonomy, or “the event,” or whatever. There's a move I see a lot in cultural writing these days, which I don’t think is a good idea even though I understand the motivation. It’s the move of claiming that a marginalized phenomenon is good because it is marginalized. I think that step is not useful and gets in the way of the goal. Even when there is a concrete injustice underlying the intellectual trivialization of the object you want to take seriously, the move isn’t going to help you to correct it (that is, the intellectual trivialization—not the injustice underlying it, which criticism isn’t going to fix by itself anyway). The only thing that works to overturn the trivialization is to seriously analyze the thing. The analysts of culture and society I enjoy reading the most these days—Sophie Lewis, Mackenzie Wark, Tina Post—do just that: bring their full intellectual force to their variously unloved or compromised or abjected objects but without getting pious about the fact that they are doing this. So it’s not about simply elevating the trivial because that's cool or something, but really to say that this thing was never trivial to begin with. And you want to uncover what made it seem falsely so. Those concrete reasons are never too far to seek. It's pretty easy to see why no one really gave the cute much of a thought—because of its associations with the feminine and with the infantile. Those associations, as it turns out, are also precisely what make the cute such a powerful agent in organizing people’s social fantasies about things ranging from race to our relationship to commodities—and these are of course sometimes linked!

I guess what I am talking about here is: how are ideological blind spots produced? Sometimes the reasons have to do with narrower institutional factors. Even though the contrast between art and kitsch was enormously productive for mid-century thinkers about art, the concept also obscured things that fell inside its boundaries, so that one couldn't see how interesting the cute was because it was stashed in that drawer. What you can say has to do with the angle from which you approach something and the categories you prioritize. If you start out with kitsch, you probably won't see cute. So method for me is inseparable from the content of the analysis. And the place from which you begin—precisely because, as Adorno argues, you can begin anywhere—seems especially important. Marx gave a lot of thought to the problem of how to begin things. So did Edward Said.

I also read something and felt weirdly vindicated by my waning interest in method wars—maybe it was Said or Adorno again—where the critic talked about the isolation of method as a thing separate from praxis as symptomatic of the larger problem of these reifications that are at once false and which objectively exist and that we can't get rid of (until we get rid of capitalism itself).

AR

Absolutely. One thing you mentioned that struck me was the way that you tied method to the content of the study, while noting the idea of a separation or divide between art and kitsch, or even just art and objects. When an aesthetic experience can happen anywhere, why bother looking at artworks specifically to understand aesthetics and understand the world? Why turn to a film like It Follows to think about the gimmick, instead of just looking at a financial derivative?

SN

That's a fantastic question. The simple answer is that the uncertainties about labor, time, and value that define our experience and judgment of the gimmick have haunted art in an especially acute way. Is making art worth it? Does it require skill? Why spend so much time on it?  Stanley Cavell has this great line from an essay that he wrote on John Cage in the 1960s called “Music Discomposed,” where he talks about all art after modernism falling under the suspicion of fraudulence. For him, there’s a very specific reason why that happens, which has to do with art’s increasing dependency on criticism in a way that produces a slackening of the necessary tension between those two things. There have been some deeper studies of this problem from an economic angle, like Dave Beech’s Art and Value, which is still the go-to book on this.

Art has always created uncertainties about the measurement of value-productive labor and we see this in particular, I think, in this fresh wave of 21st century artworks taking up, as their own content, forms of laboring which have a structurally ambiguous or unstable relation to the wage relation—caring and reproductive labor, but also service work and the manipulation of data. Duchamp may have provoked the most pointed conversation about art’s uncomfortable intimacy with the gimmick and the anxieties about value and labor it induces with his unassisted readymades at the start of the 20th century, but it lives on today in the work of Sarah Mehoyas, who makes art about blockchains and cryptocurrency.

So we could say that the entire enterprise of art has a gimmick problem. At the same time, art is still a practice involving a zone of play and freedom in which an artist can deliberately incorporate and experiment with a compromised form like the gimmick in order to explore these sorts of questions. There’s a certain risk that comes with that, but the artists I find most interesting tend to lean into it.

Working on aesthetic categories presents a unique sort of challenge. At first it seems like a benefit. If, thanks to the discontinuities of capitalist society constituting its continuity, everything is equally close to the center, and you're also dealing with these ubiquitous vernacular forms that cut across and make an impact on just about every sphere of capitalist life (the automotive industry, food, education, politics, sports, literature, fashion, you name it), your archive become enormous and there's nowhere you can’t go. This has proven true especially when it comes to studying something like the gimmick, which is nothing less than a latent aesthetic dimension in the commodity itself. So this almost boundless archive seems to be a scholarly advantage but from another perspective it’s a methodological quandary. It puts a lot of pressure on one’s choice of examples and how you justify their selection. I could write about blenders—actually I think I did write about a blender—I could write a book entirely on blenders and the gimmick and it would work just as well. I guess the other answer to your question then is that I privilege artworks as case studies because they are more complicated and interesting to talk about.

AR

Yeah, that's a great point. In thinking about the endlessness of the archives that you mentioned—how once you open it up, you can look at anything—I was curious then, how do you ultimately choose what to talk about? Even just within the idea of art, are there some specific forms that you find better suited for study?

In Theory of the Gimmick, you do talk about Google Glass or Juicero alongside Henry James and Torbjørn Rødland, but even though there's this huge range of things, some things are missing, like I don’t think—and let me know if I’m wrong!—there's any architectural analysis in the book, for example, which to me was particularly interesting because for someone like [Fredric] Jameson, that's the most privileged art form for understanding the world. And so I was curious, how do you choose what to talk about within this wide range?

SN

Well, I think part of it is just what I know. I'm not very skilled at interpreting music or architecture, because I haven't quite figured out a way to do it that feels right to me. I tend to stick to areas where I feel comfortable. That said, and with the gimmick in particular—because it’s an aesthetic latency in the commodity in general, a form lurking inside every made-to-be-sold object in capitalism—I felt I had some license to not be systematic in covering the entire cultural system. Even though I love that kind of totalizing ambition, which we see in books like Postmodernism. Anna Kornbluh is undertaking something on a similar scale in her new work on immediacy.

At the same time, there was something quasi-systematic about what I was doing, in the sense that within the boundaries of my range of media (films, industrial design, journalism, musical theater, criticism, photographs, poetry, novels, video art), I privileged artworks interested in thinking about the gimmick’s social meanings, and that seemed willing to take on the risk of incorporating or even mimetically adapting themselves to its damaged form to do so. Stan Douglas, Helen DeWitt, Nicola Barker, Henry James: all of the artists in the book are using the gimmick as a tool to meditate on something about how capitalism essentially works—and in conjunction with categories of difference like sexuality, race, and gender in particular. I noticed that the texts that tended to do this tended to be comedies, or ones that would modulate from their overarchingly Gothic nature—like in the case of It Follows, or [Robert Louis Stevenson’s] “The Bottle Imp,” or even some of the Henry James novels, which can get very dark—into comedy. It might be just a question of my being attracted to texts that are comedic, but I also think it’s because the gimmick and comedy have an unusually intimate relationship.

There are many reasons for that. In comedy theory, you see a lot of the themes that are internal to the gimmick pop up, like timing and questions of misjudgements of value. I think it's Kant who said that we laugh when something that seemed very important is shown to be unimportant. That’s that same kind of seesaw between something professing to be of great worth and being exposed as worthless—incongruities that recall the gimmick’s paradoxical mix of extravagance and impoverishment.  These are all part of classic comedy theory, so there's a structural resemblance between the motor of comedy and the way the gimmick form works. And of course, gimmicks are used in comedy. They're part of the practice of comedy—and also part of the material apparatus of professional wrestling, and magic shows. I don’t talk about wrestling in the book, but I do talk about magic, and I talk a lot about comedy. So to answer your question, it just seemed like there was already a specific cultural genre where you see the form in action to a greater degree than in other cultural practices.

AR

I want to return to something you mentioned earlier, which was the idea of art’s essential fraudulence as developed by Cavell in “Music Discomposed.” One thing in all of your work that is really compelling is the way that you foreground the political nature of the aesthetic experience, which runs against the grain—especially within this idea of fraudulence—of the kind of common sense idea that art isn't political, that its aspirations of being political are maybe gimmicky in some way, or that it’s out of touch with the world. I was wondering if you could briefly outline not only what it is that makes aesthetic categories ideal zones for understanding the capitalist world, but also how aesthetic experience is always intersubjective, agonistic, and centered around disagreement, and in some ways, always political.

SN

Yes, thank you! So first I would separate the issue of art from that of the aesthetic category, which is something different and in fact much bigger because it pertains to the social and discursive shaping of our affective, sensory experiences of not just art but all the many things in the world that are not art (though art is a great laboratory for exploring these categories). I should emphasize here that my definition of an aesthetic category is a two-sided structure: a perception of form coupled to a verbal evaluation spontaneously triggered in our response to the form. So an aesthetic category connects a structured way of seeing (or in the case of our other senses, hearing or tasting or smelling) to an equally structured or socially pre-shaped way of speaking. Both sides of this relation are conventional and affective. Affect is in fact what couples form and judgment together.

Why am I emphasizing this and how does it relate to your question? Because the judgment side of the aesthetic category—the side that involves communication, or a very peculiar kind of affective speech—tends to get overlooked as auxiliary or inessential to what an aesthetic experience is. Yet what the evaluation “side” of that experience reveals, or more specifically, what the public or performative aspect of aesthetic evaluation reveals, goes straight to the heart of foundation of modern aesthetic theory: Kant’s argument in The Critique of Judgment that aesthetic experiences are not in the end about our relations to objects, but rather about the relation of subjects to other subjects, and in a way disclosed by the infamously strange and in a certain sense illogical way in which an experience of beauty compels us to speak—as if beauty was an objective property of the object and thus something everyone should agree about. There is an uncanny resonance here with Marx’s repeated reminder in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, that capital is not a thing, but a social relation—one which however the everyday forms and activities that it organizes systematically obscures.

The way in which sociality is at once the core of aesthetic experience/judgment but also structurally hidden by it as well makes it an ideal place for understanding the peculiarly asocial sociality of capital. And thus for understanding the kinds of activity that, more than any others, bind people across the globe together under the dominance of its form: the production, consumption, and circulation of commodities. The zany, cute, and interesting are indexes of these capitalist processes, which link us to other people without anyone necessarily knowing it; it’s a sociality produced “behind our backs.” The gimmick is an index of the overarching process of capitalist valorization encompassing those processes in turn, which is why it is a form that underlies and subtends all the others.

AR

Based on something you mentioned—that although there were any number of aesthetic categories you could think about to get to the same endpoint, the zany, the interesting, and the cute felt distinctly attuned to capitalist society—I was curious about how you think about periodization: what makes those categories specifically relevant today? Though you trace the zany back to the commedia dell'arte, and you outline a broader history of the gimmick, they seem to register something particular about the present day.

SN

Yes. Though their archives are not bounded by space or time in the way artistic movements or styles are, all the aesthetic categories I study have trackable histories, and sometimes in conveniently specific areas, like performance—or literary history. The German Romantics for instance at the end of the 18th century were already theorizing “the interesting,” which seemed to them to be a modern aesthetic of difference in the form of particularity, eclecticism and idiosyncrasy. Often writing in aphoristic fragments, they contrasted the interesting to the beautiful, which they regarded as an older, holistic classical aesthetic, and in doing so they were attempting to historicize the present, to theorize their own contemporaneity.

And that to me was very exciting: that you could use aesthetic categories to periodize, to register key shifts over time in the meaning assigned to something like, say, difference. Which in the "merely interesting" Conceptual Art of the 1970s, starts to look or mean something more like information—a row of filing cabinets, or thousands of photographs of singular instances of the same type of architecture—than, say, the eclecticism of Hamlet. And this is simply because something about the aesthetic becomes different while also remaining the same.

To take up the other example you mentioned: the zany is probably the oldest aesthetic that I’ve ever talked about. It goes back to the 16th century and commedia dell’arte, where the zanni was a household servant whose main job involved repairing the social ties threatened by his employer’s sexual behavior. So the aesthetic is grounded in a style of performance that's about service work from the very beginning, and we see this continuing in late 20th century comedies like I Love Lucy and The Full Monty. But here, and as foregrounded in particular in a film like The Full Monty, in which the unemployed male workers of a permanently closed British steel factory desperately try to refashion themselves as strippers or sexual entertainers for women to fit back into the deindustrialized economy, an anxiety about the gender of service work starts to come more and more central to the story that zaniness was always telling. You can see how it’s the same aesthetic—one that is bringing together pleasure but also desperation and stress, and that seems to be about an uncertain boundary between what counts as playing and what counts as working. But the meaning of that very uncertainty is shifting in conjunction with historical shifts in the division of labor.


AR

In Theory of the Gimmick you talk about how when someone makes this kind of aesthetic evaluation, it registers a tacit or implicit understanding or uneasiness around the structure of society—like the division of labor and so on—even if one is not aware of the writings of Marx or whoever. I was curious, if these everyday categories are capable of registering this kind of understanding, how might they help us move beyond this kind of ambivalence or hesitancy to more explicit political actions in the world?

SN

I am grateful for this question because lately I’ve been thinking about how Jameson follows Kenneth Burke in calling literature a “symbolic act”; that is, how the first move of The Political Unconscious is to try to unsettle a habit all late-capitalist subjects have of seeing our cultural productions as inert things when they are actions in their own right. Then I found myself revisiting Alice Rayner’s performance studies classic To Act, to Do, to Perform. My friends know and have long mocked me for being obsessed with Kenneth Burke’s embarrassing dramatistic pentad, which I am bringing up here (sorry!) because the whole point of this almost astonishingly simple theoretical tool is to show how, in our effort to interpret what people are doing and why they are doing it—including the sorts of doing that are political position-takings, which A Grammar of Motives spends most of its chapters analyzing—elements that initially seem passive (say “context,” what Burke calls Scene), or purely mental or cognitive (say the reason for doing something, or Purpose) can inflect and even transform into one of the more “active” terms: Act, Actor, or Agency. It’s the shifting internal relationships between these elements of doing that give rise to different worldviews and political projects, from communism to neoliberalism to libertarianism. You can kind of already see how that might work.

Anyway, aesthetic categories like “cute” are also cultural position-takings—and aesthetic judgments in particular are public-facing acts of verbal performance, which can be and in fact are often subject to evaluation in turn, as stylized or aesthetic productions in their own right, in which there is always a Scene, an Actor, an Agency, a Purpose, and an Act. I talk about aesthetic-judgment-on-display quite a bit in both Our Aesthetic Categories and Theory of the Gimmick. If there is a bridge from understanding to action (which we also have to be careful to not idealize), it lies in this other-facing, “dramatistic” dimension of aesthetic experience and the intersubjective pressures it generates.

In fact, there is arguably something about the basic core or immanent discursivity of all aesthetic experience that inherently compels us to pivot from feeling to action—and then, interestingly, from action—the verbalization or making-public of one’s feeling-based evaluation—to understanding (which ironically comes at the end). The concepts for our pleasure or displeasure are only ever found in the aftermath of aesthetic judgment and the profoundly intersubjective, discursive, and public scenes into which it uniquely discloses us as being already thrown; as we learn from Kant (and as Cavell underscores in his definition of criticism as an active search for those concepts), they do not precede it. We can only see the general after the particular.

You know, two of the most ferocious arguments I have ever gotten into—in both cases with a partner or very close friend—have been about politics and aesthetics. One was about the economic status of women’s reproductive labor in capitalism. The other, hilariously, was about how to display books on a bookshelf: flush with the outer edge or against the back wall? What is striking is the arguments were equally ferocious—and in part because the topics, silly as one was, were what Sara Ahmed calls “sticky,” quickly drawing many utterly different kinds of issues and debates into their orbit. Of course the entire thing became “personal” at one point, by which I mean it activated our sore spots surrounding social distinction, gender identity, and class.

I’ve always been struck by this still weirdly undertheorized aspect of aesthetic experience, which stems directly from its immanent discursivity (that fact that, even if we are literally alone or silent as it happens, that there is something fundamentally non-private or outward-facing about aesthetic experience). That even in cases of equivocal evaluations like that of the cute or the gimmick, their spontaneity compels us to make these judgments public with total conviction, and in a verbally peculiar, even illogical way—a well-nigh presumptuous demand for everyone’s agreement—that will automatically set you up in a position to fight. No one saw this better than Pierre Bourdieu: the one aesthetic theorist who seemed to immediately grasp, and I’m going to put this in a deliberately exaggerated way, that what aesthetics and politics have in common is fighting—not just a desire for affective attunement or belonging or collectivity, but, or rather, precisely because of that desire: fighting. And that capitalist collectivity is, as a recent issue of Texte zur Kunst foregrounds, hierarchy and envy and antagonism. See social media—and the core affect it inevitably defaults to. Though I think there is finally much more to the sociality of aesthetic evaluation than what Bourdieu’s theory of taste as class conflict or invidious distinction allows us to see, I have always admired how he managed to rupture the gentility of the discourse of aesthetics, and give us access to what it blocks us from acknowledging.


AR

Alongside some of the things you just mentioned—such as moving from the individual to the social, or from a particular instance to the universal, as well as the class conflicts that Bourdieu tracks—I noticed that in one of the footnotes in Theory of the Gimmick, you cite Marx, speaking in “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”: “the weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.” As a note to end on, how do you hope people interact with your work? What would you like them to take away from it? Or do with it?

SN

One thing I hope people can do with it is to see that critical thinking is not some kind of specialized practice that only intellectuals do, that it's embedded in ordinary aesthetic experiences and conversations that we have about our pleasures and displeasures. And to therefore feel confident about this activity in the face of what sometimes we’re told, which is that it's either elitist or a buzzkill—that our capacity for aesthetic perception and enjoyment will be destroyed when we think critically about it.

What our experiences/judgments of the zany, cute, interesting, and maybe especially the gimmick rather tell us, in constantly forcing us to pivot from the affective and seemingly private to the public, from the singular to the general, or from the individual to the totality; and to retroactively discover, through this very process, the concepts or mediations that make such pivoting possible, is that critical thinking—even maybe dialectical thinking—is something we are doing all the time. Aesthetic pleasure and critique are not opposites. They entirely coincide in things like the experience of the gimmick.

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