Aesthetics is, at its best and at its origins, a form of hunting. Not only a hunt for the beautiful and the sublime, but also for the ensnarement and identification of subtle experiences, ambivalent impressions, and novel sensations. If beauty and truth represent the big game—the promise of freedom, happiness, and peace on earth—the minor aesthetic categories are smaller, but still significant, quarry. Even in the eighteenth century, in the writing of Edmund Burke and Richard Payne Knight, Friedrich Schiller and Schlegel, the philosophy of taste often revolved around the marginal categories of the pretty, the ugly, and the picturesque. The ability to discern subtle differences within and between them was a crucial pursuit in the cultivation of taste. Precisely because declarations of taste said as much about the observer as the observed, taste functioned as a barometer by which human nature could measure its own progress.
To Enlightenment thinkers, the study of taste was conducted partly as a sport of self-improvement and partly as a historical responsibility. The minor categories, such as the pretty and the picturesque, offered a key advantage over the eternal verities of the beautiful and the sublime because they were historically determined, so their study could also yield proof of the advance (or lack thereof) of a culture or civilization. Although separated from Burke and Payne Knight, Schiller and Schlegel by a couple of hundred years of history and scholarship, Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories emerges from the same fascination with those minor categories of aesthetic experience that tell us most about our times. The categories that Ngai, an English professor at Stanford University, isolates for diagnosis are the cute, the interesting, and the zany. For her, they represent the richest sites for field research into the current state of taste. What Ngai argues is that just as the commodity cycle has transformed the appearance of the material world, so the judgments of taste have transformed along with it. In three stand-alone essays, she examines how the aesthetics of consumption are exemplified by cuteness, what the zany tells us about the aesthetics of production, and how the aesthetics of circulation are regulated by the interesting.
"Cute" is a much more ambivalent description than social niceties will allow us to admit. When we snatch up something cute in an embrace, we pantomime the act of defending our protein-rich and defenseless little pal from an imaginary threat, but the rigid urgency of our embrace, and the concomitant 'devouring-in-kisses' suggests that what we're protecting the cute thing from is ourselves. Consider how often the ejaculation of a phrase like "aren't you cute!" is followed and intensified by "I could just eat you!" Or, consider Ngai’s example of a bath sponge in the shape of a frog. Its cute big eyes, its cute blobby form, its winsomely wounded expression—everything about the bath-frog’s design culminates in a single purpose: for it to be held against the body and “squished in a way guaranteed to repeatedly crush and deform its already somewhat formless face.” The schema of cute is a simple one, and its cartoonish predictability combined with the involuntary somatic nature of our response makes it very much like another response we're much less likely to loudly advertise—our response to porn. Cute is the kind of porn you can enthusiastically consume in public.
Discovering that the pleasure that we take in cuteness contains more than a grain of sadism is not only counter-intuitive and interesting in its own right, Ngai contends, but it also tells us a lot about our ambivalent relationship to commodities in general. Consumption always culminates in the destruction of the thing that we desire, and yet one of the comforting things about commodities is their immortality—no matter how many cans of Coke we drink, there will always be another, identical to the one that came before. Cuteness, with its weird mixture of vulnerability and resilience, carries with it the promise that we will be able to eat our cake and have it too.
If "cuteness" is symptomatic of the aesthetics of contemporary consumption, "zaniness" is about production. Perhaps the classic cinematic example would be Charlie Chaplin's character in Modern Times, who struggles energetically to submit to the inhuman demands of the factory in which he works. Unable to keep up with the staccato demands of the production line, Chaplin is dragged by the conveyor belt into the heart of the machine itself. In a delirious sequence, he is wrapped around giant gears and waltzes through the innards of the machine before being spat out like Jonah from the whale. Incorporated and then ejected, he has been reborn as the little tramp, whose stuttering walk and ticky gestures echo the movement of celluloid film through a projector. Victimized by the machine, Chaplin becomes the archetypal modern zany; a jittery bundle of crankshaft limbs, whose stiff gestures make every vibration of the projector visible upon the screen.
To excavate the prehistory of such slapstick, Ngai goes back to the original “zanni” of the commedia dell’arte, the illiterate peasant driven by poverty into the city and forced into the incompetent pursuit of every imaginable trade or vocation. The transient vocations of the zanni directly parallel the reality of the contemporary casual worker thrown into the endless situational comedy of the service industries. In its postmodern manifestation, the term implies a detachment and degree of condescension on the part of the observer, a social barrier at least the width of a service counter. Recalling the overbearing servility of Jim Carey's character in The Cable Guy, Ngai shows how the zanni—or contemporary zany—is characterized by a kind of enthusiastic bad faith; by the character who apes competence at whatever profession is called for, from cook to chauffeur, barber to pimp. In the clumsy animation of the hyperactive zany, who seeks to please but is doomed to fail, Ngai acerbically notes the sadness of someone who knows that the battle is already lost. To be described as “zany” is to be called funny and tragic all at once.
Finally, Ngai is at her critical best when exploring the formal emptiness of "interesting" as a judgment. Unlike the blobby cute or the hyperactive zany, the interesting has no external characteristics. We recognize it through context, that is, through novelty, the emergence of an unexpected element within a predictable sequence. Where the cute is contaminated with sadism, and the zany is associated with complicity and humiliation, the interesting has the touch of the vacuous about it. When we declare something interesting, we literally indicate that we've seen something that we can't yet fully account for. Because of this, the characteristic physical gesture that accompanies the statement "that's interesting" is a pointed finger. As in John Baldessari’s series of conceptual artworks, A Person Was Asked to Point (1969), the pointing functions as a promissory note, suggesting that there is more that remains to be said, but we don't know what it is yet, nor even if we care. On the one hand, in its very indeterminacy, the interesting is affiliated with that je ne sais quoi, the “I don’t know what” that Leibniz recognized as the hesitation, the quiver of the mind that is the invariable precursor to strong aesthetic experiences. On the other, the interesting is always a single step from the trivial, which is in turn a single step from being boring. By definition, a series of interesting things cannot be interesting. Against a background of ceaseless novelty, novelty has no means by which to distinguish itself. Rather, variety without end produces a frantic monotony, the death-in-life attributed to the circulation of value in a commodity system that make no reference to human ends.
Ngai is not concerned with humanity at its best, perfectly formed (an ideological fiction, anyway), but with humanity frustrated. There is a profound continuity between Our Aesthetic Categories and Ngai's earlier work Ugly Feelings (2005) in that both books are concerned with "states of weakness," that is, non-cathartic feelings and ambivalent judgments. However, while Ugly Feelings dealt with negative affects like envy, irritation, and paranoia—with feelings that undermine their own communication and resolution—Our Aesthetic Categories focuses on judgments that are equivocal, non-committal or even explicitly trivial or flippant. What is strange about this book is that it is at once a well-behaved piece of contemporary scholasticism (complete with sometimes excessively scrupulous referencing), and a continuation of an extinct genre, the enlightenment meditation on marginal categories of aesthetic judgment. To my knowledge, no one else is doing anything like this. There are many people who write about the history of the enlightenment from a contemporary perspective, but very few who write about the contemporary using the tools of the enlightenment. By tracing the circulation of such small coin between the avant garde and Madison Avenue with forensic precision, Ngai is suggesting a new approach to cultural criticism that has much in common with some of the best criticism of the eighteenth century, yet is unlike anything we've seen before.