The Aesthetic experiences of the zany, the cute and the interesting that Sianne Ngai describes have saturated our postmodern civilization. They control the appearance of its artwork and commodities as well as our discourse about the ambivalent emotions these items often encourage. Sianne Ngai who is an American cultural theorist, feminist scholar and literary critic; proposes a theory of aesthetic concepts that most people use to process mass mediated, performance stimulated, hyper commodified culture of late capitalism, approaching them with the same intensity philosophers have reserved for the study of the beautiful and the sublime. Ngai examines how each of these artistic concepts convey conflicting feelings relevant to how postmodern topics work, share, and ingest. She states that the zany is a manufacturing aesthetic, the interesting an aesthetic of distribution, and the cute an aesthetic of consumption. Although Ngai is explicitly dedicated as ‘our’ category to the creation of these artistic concepts, she is also vigilant in describing how the influence plays a vital role as to how they interact, even if they do so in vague and subdued ways. She addresses affective and cultural criticism in her recent book, ‘Our Aesthetic Categories’, using the zany, the cute and the interesting. The book offers a window into affective and safe criticism that is not as psychoanalytic as the previous work of Ngai. Ngai’s latest book may not seem to give us a lot of impact studies, but close exploration of Ngai’s methodology reveals new approaches to influential studies.
Ngai’s chapter on the zany, ‘The Zany Science’, she takes up the continuously more political contract within work and play. Zany is affective when it relates to being mildly entertaining; but, with the exception of the cute it is not an effect to which one is constantly subjected. However, due to the extreme ways it creates uncomfortable feelings of risk and loss of control, Ngai argues that perhaps the zany is an aesthetic which can be admired only at a distance and also through characters. In this chapter, Ngai’s beliefs throughout aesthetics, affect, and Marxist critique particularly come together as she discusses how an aesthetic interpretation of late capitalist work requires an emotional and simultaneous feminization of labor, while making a distinction separating toil and play, do and perform. The origins of the word ‘zanni’ came from the sixteenth century Italian theater in the commedia dell’arte stock characters. Traditionally, the Zanni was an immigrant worker characterized by unique casual work, and temporarily private benefits offered in the residence. The contemporary class of zany has established a semantic smoothness throughout time that reflects its traditional commedia dell’arte’s professional fluidity.
‘The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde’ chapter, Ngai brings together a series of somewhat unexpected and increasingly logical arguments; she concludes that perhaps the avant-garde, and specifically the avant-garde poetry has collaborated in the structures and vocabulary of cuteness in a way that emphasizes the current association of literature with fragility, femininity, playfulness and weakness. She conveys J. L. Austin’s ‘How to Do Things with Words’ into conference with Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgment’ suggests that “aesthetic decisions are essentially sentiment-based judgments as related to beliefs or concepts”. She claims that perhaps the affective extent of these judgments deserves more attention as they refer to “relative weaknesses and/or power of the intensities underlying” (57). Ngai argues as one of our cultural classes of ‘cuteness’ because it ranks perception of powerlessness in the twentieth century in regards to objects and culture. Cultural commentators are so often ashamed to acknowledge the cute; inadequacy always seems to be humiliating at a certain degree. Ngai’s pervasive attachment to the cute, a step-sister to more than just the attractive and the hideous; emphasizes the inconsistency among its social dominance and critical indifference. There is an example here that can be made more broadly, one about the contrast between what we have been reacting to and whether it is appropriate to recognize that we should be responding to, particularly in the public. To conclude cuteness as a classification, its everyday accountability including its more malevolent characteristics, she makes a compelling argument for taking advantage of aesthetics and the effects of frailty as well as those of strong responsibility on the grounds that “art has the ability not only to reflect and mystify authority but also to take into account on and make use of powerlessness”.
‘Interesting’ has become such a subtle and familiar aesthetic judgement that it hardly seems to meet the requirements at all as a judgement. However, this is essentially the point explained by Ngai. She analyses interesting as just an aesthetic judgment combining emotions between both enjoyment and frustration as well as vulnerability and movement. Perhaps the most descriptive part of Ngai’s arguments is her articulation of the interesting connection with empiricism. “The judgment always seems underpinned by a claim, if not necessarily weak, affective intensity whose minimalism is somehow understood to secure its link to ratiocinative cognition”, – given her complicated relationship towards the information, she discusses how challenging it would be to present the evidence to uphold her aesthetic judgment as interesting (112-113). We’re trying to encourage communication when we say something is important, and we would want to be asked to describe ourselves. Ngai’s fascination with particularity, locality, novelty and unrestricted is the new novel (through the famous dictate of Henry James: “The only obligation in which we may have a novel in advance is to be interesting”), aesthetic disapproval, as well as the conceptual art of the 1960s. Conceptual art is often celebrated or criticized for absence of passion, an unsentimental approach to evidence, duplication, and desiccation. Ngai mentions repetitive photos from 1963 by Ed Ruscha’s ‘Twenty-Six Gasoline Station’s as somewhat of an example of conceptual art’s cool impression. The mixture of approaches to this aesthetic experience provides a range of feelings, including joy and dissatisfaction. Although this chapter is the least affected, Ngai’s reflections on the interesting offer a good framework for evaluating the interaction involving affect and perception.