By MIKKEL BOLT RASMUSSEN and DEVIKA SHARMA
This interview appeared in Danish in Kultur & Klasse (Culture & Class).
Rasmussen & Sharma [R & S]: Your books Ugly Feelings (2005) and Our Aesthetic Categories (2012) are concerned with ambivalent feelings, their aesthetics, and their critical functions. While in Ugly Feelings you are careful not to overvalue the critical capacities of the minor affects, you nevertheless seem to be in agreement with thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze in “Bartleby; Or, The Formula”, Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri in Empire and Slavoj Žižek in Violence, who also see in Melville’s Bartleby a figure for a viable critical attitude. One could make the historical argument that the attempt to outline a ‘passive-critical’ or ‘post-critical’ attitude centred on Bartlebyan figures is related to the period in which a post-structuralist critique of more traditional Marxist class-war analyses became hegemonic. Would you agree with such an argument?
Sianne Ngai [SN]: Ugly Feelings does open with the figure of Bartleby, as an example of the special challenge that politically ambiguous, non-cathartic emotions pose for interpretation. Bartleby as site of equivocal, difficult to read, but clearly still negative affect, is thus functioning more as a figure for a hermeneutic object (the specific kinds of feelings I study) than as a figure for critical subjectivity. Ugly Feelings tends, in general, to be more focused on feelings as objective structures than subjective dispositions. My emphasis is on how, for all their weak intentionality (in most cases), these negative feelings still retain an immanent criticality. They prepare a way for agonistic thinking, in spite of lacking the sharply defined objects so important to cognitive appraisals. So the book is finally more of a testimony to critique’s persistence, even in the face of ambivalent emotions, than to its waning or dissipation.
In any case, the link you draw between the rise of post-structuralism and the rise of a passive-critical or post-critical attitude (for which the figure of Bartleby has indeed been summoned as a sort of mascot, just not by me) seems suggestive and correct. But I hope it is clear that I do not think of my own practice as either post-structuralist or post-critical. It’s rather materialist, in the tradition of Marxist aesthetic theory and feminist theory in particular. The influence of feminism on my work is not always easy to see because I don’t always write explicitly on topics related to gender or sexuality. But it is there in the most fundamental ways I have learned to think about culture, in the very selection of objects and in the pores of the analysis.
In fact, going against the direction of a number of closely-related trends in American intellectual thought—surface reading, object-oriented ontology, the return to beauty—I would characterize my practice as anti-post-critical. It is interesting to note that the tendencies I have just named all see themselves as corrections to the excesses of post-structuralism, not as a continuation of its project. But I think the post-critical is exactly that: a continuation and in fact intensification of certain aspects of post-structuralist thought.
I however do not unilaterally reject poststructuralist thinking. Feminist post-structuralism in particular has had a strong influence on me because it has always remained resolutely critical, retaining exactly what the post-critical defines itself by rejecting. Take Nietzsche as an oft-cited precedent for feminist thinkers like Irigaray, Butler, and Wittig as well as Deleuze, Foucault, and Baudrillard. Nietzsche practiced a hermeneutics of suspicion, taking the difference between the ways things are and the way things appear as seriously as did Marx and Freud.
I also think that the moment of post-structuralist hegemony, as you put it, is actually past and that now we are seeing an interesting and exciting efflorescence of new kinds of Marxist and feminist analyses. I suppose some of these might be described as “passive,” too, in that they focus on the effects of social forms and structures as opposed to the agency of the subjects of traditional class antagonisms. (I’m thinking of value-form analysis, and recent work on gender and sphere theory in places like Endnotes). Thinking about politics certainly requires thinking about action and agency, though it is important to find more nuanced ways of doing the latter. As Anne Cheng points out in her recent work on black and Asian femininity, aesthetics, and law, the sovereign subject seems to always remain the implicit standard against which we measure the compromised agencies of those who are officially not-subjects, to whom the status of subject is legally or existentially denied. This is an important theme in Lauren Berlant’s work as well.
In Our Aesthetic Categories and recent work on what Marx calls real or practical abstraction, I become more focused on the agency exerted by capitalist forms and structures. And in what we do in the ordinary if also fascinatingly complex affective speech acts that are our everyday acts of aesthetic judgment, which is in part to register and even mediate on these structures and the kinds of sociality they both presume and make possible.
R & S: A related question: We appreciate very much your insightful suggestion that ugly feelings often diagnose situations of obstructed agency. But can ugly feelings also produce political agency? Or, to re-phrase, is it possible to go from ugly or minor feelings to an ugly or minor politics? And how would such a politics unfold/play itself out on a larger scale?
Absolutely. Envy is a classic example. It is the only negative emotion in the repertoire of the subject of advanced capitalist society that proceeds from her cognition of social or distributional inequality. Hence envy has the potential to become a feeling that binds subjects together in their sense of mutual antagonism to those who possess what they do not. Envy underlines, enables us to more sharply or vividly discern, this difference in the objective distribution of property (including properties like “ability” or “male privilege”). “Those who do not envy with us, are against us!” is the slogan Helmut Schoeck likes to quote in his magisterial work on this emotion. Envy helps subjects define an “us” and also an “enemy.” In doing so it underscores two well-known theories of “politics”: the formation and making visible of collectives and collectivity, and Schmitt’s concept of the construction of the enemy.
All of this goes a long way toward explaining why there is so much affective management of envy and why that management is so culturally generative. More than any other affect or emotion discussed in Ugly Feelings, envy has been subjectivized or psychologized in way that perpetually renders the objectivity of its object (inequality) vulnerable to epistemological doubt. And even when the relation of inequality which envy discerns is a brute fact and not a matter of individualizing psychological “perspective.”
It does not seem scandalous that those compelled by necessity to sell their labor power might envy those who do not. Nor that women denied the privileges of men envy the men who do possess them. Yet envy is always morally vilified. The feeling of shame, which shores up the self’s sense of individuality in a painful, unwanted way, almost enwraps as if to smother envy’s fundamentally social and diagnostic power. It turns envy into a dysphoric negative emotion which the subject wants to avoid or repudiate.
Capitalist societies where inequality is highest have given rise to extremely creative ways of managing and containing envy. We see this already in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which I follow Jean-Pierre Dupuy in reading as less a positive theory of sympathy than a negative theory of envy—a theory of how “civil society” comes to hang together through the intersubjective management of this socially destabilizing emotion. Even Nietzsche grudgingly, half-admiringly acknowledges envy’s creative and cultural powers as he attacks it The Genealogy of Morals. For exactly this reason I ask for an amoral re-evaluation of envy and specifically feminist envy in Ugly Feelings.
Irritation is another way of registering social dissatisfaction and thus an interesting example of the potential movement from feelings to politics you describe. It’s almost a kind of a meta-example, in that the significance of the difference between weak and strong negative affect which I explore throughout Ugly Feelings seems to be a question raised by its very form. Should irritation’s difference from anger be understood as one of degree or of kind? And what is politically at stake in that difference? To answer this I look at Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance novel Quicksand (1929). Larsen’s novel is a fascinating mediation on irritation, in light of the constant flow of micro-aggressions which the black female protagonist must repeatedly parry, but at which she cannot afford to let herself become enraged. Sociologist Micki McGee notes that irritation seems a key affective ingredient of the “problem with no name” that Betty Freidan writes about in The Feminine Mystique. In Freidan, the transition from feeling to politics hangs on the possibility that the irritation of the housewife could eventually, through intensification, become anger. In Larsen, what is political is exactly the fact that it cannot.
R & S: In both Ugly Feelings and Our Aesthetic Categories you discuss sublimity as an aesthetic category and a concept of feeling that does not describe very well aesthetic experience and subjectivity today, due in part to its implications of such grand phenomena as awe, terror, transcendence and unrepresentability. But could we not argue—along the lines of Bruce Robbins’ concept of ’the sweatshop sublime’—that the contemporary and very ordinary experience of living under global capitalism, subject to systemic injustice, privileged and paralyzed by structures of inequality, is, exactly, an ugly experience of sublimity? An experience registering collective apathy and social powerlessness – and often giving rise to a non-cathartic aesthetic? Perhaps this disempowering version of the sublime is even aligned somehow with the feelings of paranoia under conditions of complicity that you analyze so lucidly in Ugly Feelings?
In a way I address a version of what you describe in Ugly Feelings. Here, the becoming ordinary of the experience of feeling overwhelmed gets condensed in the paradoxical structure of feeling I call stuplimity, in which we find the classically sublime feeling of awe almost comically coupled to the feeling of boredom or exhaustion. Stuplimity thus offers an exaggerated version of the affective incongruity at the heart of capitalist sublimity, while at the same time gesturing at its normalization or banalization. It is somehow an intensification and domestication of it at once.
In any case, your question points to how, as Lilian Rösing noted during our conversation in Copenhagen, low affective intensities, and the aesthetic experiences to which they give rise, can actually be responses to, or ways of managing, experiences of high intensity. The hyper-commodified, performance-driven, information-saturated world of capitalism is certainly intense. But most of our ways of processing it cognitively, meditating on it aesthetically, or just affectively inhabiting it are not.
At the same time, some of our everyday ways of aesthetically processing this world are intense. I am thinking of zaniness and cuteness. In fact, the latter has been described by scientists as affecting the same parts of the brain that respond to drugs like cocaine. In moving from Ugly Feelings to Our Aesthetic Categories, my focus shifts from the topic of low or equivocal affect per se, toward the affectively equivocal situation that ensues from the pairing of opposing affects: tenderness and aggression, in the case of the cute; fun and un-fun, in the case of the zany; interest and boredom, in the case of the merely interesting.
But let me get back to the sublime and more specifically to “The Sweatshop Sublime,” which I can gloss quickly for readers who don’t know the essay. For Robbins the sweatshop or capitalist sublime is an aesthetic response to the negative or meta-cognition of a cognitive and/or perceptual difficulty. First, the challenge posed to the subject or intellectual of grasping her or her position in a vast and complicated global totality (in Robbins’s examples, such grasping seems to happen only in a flash-like, Gestalt-based epiphany). Second, the difficulty of moving from that rare or difficult to achieve epiphany to action (where “action” is something Robbins also cautions intellectuals against idealizing). Fredric Jameson explores the formal or representational implications of this problem most vividly in The Geopolitical Aesthetic, in which he argues that the paranoia of the late 20th century conspiracy film represents a compromised but nonetheless salutary “stab” at thinking the totality of a system whose complexity and scale seems to fundamentally exceed the mental faculties we’ve been given to process it.
I recognize the partly dysphoric, partly euphoric experience of capitalism as a challenge to perception, cognition, and representation that Robbins and Jameson invoke the Kantian sublime to describe. I identify with the desire for more precise accounts of complex capitalist affective experiences which leads them to the sublime in the first place. And I agree, wholeheartedly, with your reminder that there is something importantly ordinary about the experience of being overwhelmed at the heart of sweatshop or capitalist sublimity.
So why is the sublime not one of the privileged “quilting points” in Our Aesthetic Categories for the theorization of capitalist aesthetic experience overall? This is such a great question, I hope it is okay if I take a little more space than usual to respond.
First, I am wary of how a focus on an experience of awe that aestheticizes the (seeming) breakdown of our ability to think our own social totality might abet a postmodern tendency to wallow in sublimity. Here I am not thinking of critics like Robbins and Jameson. I am thinking of other theorists, from the shinier zones of the art world, who have tried to instate sublimity at the center of contemporary aesthetic theory in order to promote, in Anne Fastrup’s words [Ngai refers here to a personal conversation in Copenhagen], an idea of “art as emancipation through cognitive powerlessness.” Like Fastrup, I find this idea of art deeply repellent.
The sublime is about how we can’t or don’t process the system of late capitalism. I am by contrast interested in the aesthetic judgments through which ordinary subjects do cognitively and perceptually process it. These aesthetic categories are central to capitalist culture as a whole for precisely this reason. They do more cultural work, more imaginary problem-solving for us than the sublime.
Any aestheticization of the subject’s powerlessness in the face of great power or complexity tends to promote quasi-religious feelings, even when its object is capitalism and not God or infinity. This is perhaps why, while absent from ordinary conversations (more on that soon), we see so much of the subliming of capitalism in financial writing. As Chris Nealon shows in The Matter of Capital, mass-circulated post-Keynesian discourse about the 2008 crisis, while acknowledging for the first time in more than half a century that capitalism might not be a historical inevitability, nonetheless found itself unable to imagine alternatives, resorting repeatedly to “theological language” at the sites of this ideological blockage (140). Every invocation of the capitalist sublime seems to sublime capitalism even further.
Second, the sublime is not, and has never been, part of anyone’s everyday conversation about aesthetic experience. This absence from everyday aesthetic talk stands to reason, given that sublimity is precisely the aesthetic experience in which talk stops—in which the judging subject falls silent. By contrast, virtually every other aesthetic experience activates the judging subject’s desire to find concepts or language for sharing it. Unlike the interesting, cute, and beautiful (as understood by Kant), all of which produce the compulsion to share these judgments with others, even at the risk of exposure, disagreement, and ridicule, sublimity is a fundamental anti-discursive experience. It is thus an intensely individualizing, even isolating one.
By contrast, I see or hear “cute” used multiple times on a daily basis by virtually everyone: my mother, university colleagues, students, journalists, architects, children. I hear “interesting” in the grocery store, at the dentist, on TV, in the classroom, in poems, on social media, in fashion magazines, and in scholarly articles, as a way to enter, prolong, or extend conversations about aesthetics specifically. “Interesting” is such a widely circulating judgment that Bourdieu offers it as one of four “basic” options—the others being Beautiful, Ugly, and Meaningless—for aesthetic response in his surveys of working-class French taste. This configuration implicitly positions Interesting as the structural opposite of Meaningless, and thus as roughly synonymous with Meaningful, in a yet to be discovered way.
But for whatever reason, the sublime is just not part of the remarkably resilient public language—resilient even in the face of steadily diminishing commons—in which subjects of capitalism give form to their experiences. Aside from the professional philosopher or theorist, who uses this term? In what discussions about aesthetics, other than academic ones, is it actually circulating? The sublime’s absence from everyday discourse needs to be taken seriously.
It is not part of the language ordinary people use to publicize their aesthetic feelings—as we are so strangely, almost perversely compelled to do.
This compulsion or felt necessity to not just share, but demand agreement for a judgment based on irreducibly subjective feelings of pleasure or displeasure, rather than on concepts or rules, and in an objective, third-person syntax to boot (not: “I judge X beautiful,” which is unproblematic and technically accurate, but rather, almost inviting disagreement or conflict: “X is beautiful”), is exactly what makes aesthetic evaluations so fascinating. It is also what shows aesthetic judgment—and aesthetic experience, in my view inseparable from judgment—to be fundamentally about sociality. It is because I take this dialogical dimension of aesthetics so seriously, see the affectively complex, historically specific ways in which we judge and justify our judgments as central to how we understand aesthetic experience overall, that I cannot take the sublime as a privileged category for thinking about the aesthetics of advanced capitalism as a whole.
Indeed, one of the things Our Aesthetic Categories does that I think most theoretically useful, is systematically reconnect verbal acts of evaluation to non-discursive aesthetic styles. The former aspect is often left out of discussion altogether. So I try hard to bring the “subjective” as well as discursive aspect of aesthetic experience—feeling-based judgment, an affectively complex, perlocutionary speech act—back into relation to the “objective,” often non-discursive styles more typically taken up for analysis in literary studies, art history, performance studies, and cultural studies.
One last reason for why the Kantian sublime isn’t central to my study of capitalist aesthetics has to do with its own form. The Kantian sublime ultimately resolves its dysphoric moment into one of euphoria, ending emphatically on the high of the latter. For all its two affectively discrepant phases, the judgment of the sublime is thus finally one of conviction, like beauty. It is impossible for either of these judgments to be equivocal.
This is not the case with the ambivalent aesthetic categories at the center of my study of capitalist aesthetics. To judge something “cute” can be either to compliment or insult it, admire or express contempt for it, and often both at once. “Interesting,” as many people have joked, can actually mean “boring.” It is not only unclear if calling something “zany” is to praise or dispraise it; it is sometimes unclear as to whether that appellation has an evaluative charge at all. Cute, interesting, and zany are such equivocal judgments that they can take either positive or negative form. They can also be either affectively weak or strong judgments, whereas the sublime can only be strong. (One cannot say, as we can for the cute, “I guess it’s sublime…kind of.)
And this is important because I think the unresolved equivocality at the heart of the cute, interesting, and zany, points to something historically unique about late-capitalist art aesthetic experience and culture overall. For judging subjects weaned on an incessant flow of advertisements, who can intuitively grasp what “society of the spectacle” means without reading Debord, and perhaps most of all for female and racialized consumers, who know what it is to continually second-guess one’s “own” aesthetic taste (“is it wrong that I like cheongsams?”), most of our aesthetic judgments are precisely not ones of conviction. Aesthetic judgments based on mixed or ambivalent feelings prevail in a world of what Hal Foster has called “total design,” in which every made thing is a made-to-be-sold thing, and thus heavily researched and aesthetically engineered to appeal to who the consumer is supposed to be and what she is supposed to desire. As embodied in the capitalist gimmick, in particular (my current project), how can there not be a fundamental instability, if not outright mistrust or doubt, at the heart of our most common aesthetic experiences?
Going back to what we discussed earlier, this affective uncertainty at the heart of an aesthetic judgment like that of the gimmick, or cute, does not necessarily mean that the experience itself is weak. Robert Pfaller reminds us that Freud’s concept of ambivalence, the co-presence of negative and positive affects about X, does not involve a situation in which each affect neutralizes the force of the other. In other words, ambivalence does not involve a kind of psychic “arithmetic,” in which we end up with a slightly less negative relation to X than we would if the positive affect were not there, and vice versa. Rather, ambivalence about X strengthens the affective intensity of our attachment to X overall. From this point of view, the co-existence of axiologically clashing feelings at the heart of the judgments/experiences of the cute, interesting, and zany, testifies to their affective power as aesthetic judgments/experiences, and not to their lack thereof. At the same time, and this is not a paradox, these aesthetic judgments/experiences are intense—or unambiguous—encounters with ambivalence. The cute, interesting, and zany show how a powerful encounter with ambivalence is not only possible, but also just how common this situation is.
R & S: When describing in OAC the relation between, on the one hand, the various cultural phenomena that you read very closely and, on the other hand, the issues of political economy that you read in a more indirect way, you suggest that aesthetic categories are about the late capitalist processes of production, consumption, and distribution. You also use terms such as ’index’, ’register’, and ’reflect’ in order to describe this ‘relation of aboutness’. To many of us within arts and cultural studies ’representation’ is perhaps a more familiar model of aboutness, but you don’t seem to be very interested in the practices of cultural representation. Why not?
I use terms like “index” and “register” in order to stress the continuity of these aesthetic categories with the capitalist spheres of activity to which they refer. The commodity aesthetic of cuteness is about but also belongs to consumer culture. Post-Fordist zaniness is about and also a product of “perform or else” work culture. These aesthetic styles often participate in or reinforce the social relations they index, which is another reason I prefer to say they “register” rather than more passively “represent” those relations. They are materially part of the larger social phenomena they refer to, in the way that smoke is part of and thus an index of fire.
These aesthetic styles can of course be explicitly used in the service of representing what they themselves do not explicitly represent. Cuteness, say that of a puppy, a pair of socks, or a poem, does not “represent” gendered asymmetries of power, or our ambivalence about commodities. But it can be mobilized to do so. And of course, cuteness itself can be the explicit object of representation or meditation, as it clearly is in the D.O.B. paintings of Murakami. My sense is that the most brilliant artistic mediations on an aesthetic style or category, inevitably take on the risk of assuming its formal properties. A meditation on cuteness—its logic, its ideology, its politics—need not necessarily be cute, but it often is.
I also like the word “register” because its connotations of printing or officially recording information point to the social force of the thing that is registering on us, to how we are stamped or materially altered by it, this thing being sometimes a social or capitalist abstraction. “Register” captures the counterintuitively visceral way in which, say, in our experience of cuteness, something like our complex and ambivalent relation to the commodity form makes an impact on our sensorium.
R & S: In your work you point to the ways in which aesthetic evaluations register social conflicts and asymmetrical relations of power. This seems to us a highly relevant and analytically fruitful observation. Yet the social conflicts that you draw our attention to appear somewhat abstract or ‘theoretical’. How would you describe the role, or status, of social inequality and forms of domination (racism, sexism, exploitation etc.) in your work?
Perhaps it would be useful if I compare how I see social conflict reflected in aesthetic judgment with the way in which Pierre Bourdieu does in Distinction, since he’s such a well-known writer on this subject. Though it does not explain everything (and in fact leaves out a lot), Bourdieu’s argument that our aesthetic tastes are really expressions of distaste, or even disgust at those of other social classes, is one I take very seriously. My key difference is that I do not think they are always and only this. Aesthetic judgments can be, but are finally not reducible to acts of invidious distinction. If this were the case, aesthetic judgment would not be the reflexive source of intellectual and aesthetic fascination it so clearly is—think of the widespread appeal of judgment-oriented TV shows like Project Runaway and Top Chef. It would be too boring—just the same, endlessly repeating act of social distinction. (Significantly, the judgments Bourdieu seems to have in mind when he presses his point are non-descriptive, purely evaluative “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” ones, not judgments with rich descriptive content like cute and zany.)
So yeah, I think reducing aesthetic judgment to ideology in the form of invidious distinction and snobbery—which of course it sometimes is—prevents us from seeing 95% of the picture. Including how judgments can be ideological in ways other than snobbery, which is by no means capitalist society’s only kind of domination! It prevents us from asking about what I think most interesting about aesthetic judgments, which is the strangely heightened intensity that surrounds their making. People take pleasure in the verbal performance of aesthetic judging and its inevitable aftermath of dispute and justification. The scene of aesthetic judgment overall always seems affectively charged, even when the judgments themselves are mild or low-affect.
Why is this? Because of the discursivity, publicity, and sociality of aesthetic judging. We never judge alone, only in relation to other judges. And yet that sociality is somehow masked or never immediately evident in aesthetic feeling itself; it needs to be revealed by critique or more simply through the practice of everyday aesthetic discourse. This sociality has room for multiple antagonisms, not necessarily invidious or baleful. Disidentifications enacted through aesthetic evaluations are also often modes of positive affiliation with others.
But so far I have been talking about how social conflict manifests in aesthetic judgment in an “external” way, or about conflict as what taste produces. Structural inequalities generated or harnessed by capital are also “internal” to the aesthetic categories I tend to study. The aesthetic experience of cuteness hangs on our perception of a fundamental imbalance in the distribution of power between ourselves and the cute commodity: a necessarily unthreatening, and for this reason frequently feminized or infantilized object. Our awareness of this asymmetry—the fact that the cute object does not have the power to harm us, but that we have the potential to harm it—produces equivocal feelings: aggression as well as tenderness, contempt and/or disgust as well as admiration. We still always draw some degree of pleasure from it, which is why it is so often noted that that there’s a sadism to cuteness. And if cuteness is some fundamental way a consumer aesthetic, a judgment/experience enabling the consumer to construe her relation to the commodity as a harmless, unthreatening form, zaniness is an aesthetic category about production or work. The answer to the question I pose in that chapter, why this playful style is so stressful or unpleasant, and more complexly, why so many generations have found pleasure in that very ambiguous combination of fun and stress, is that zaniness has always been an aesthetic category about unevenly distributed, yet socially compulsory affective work—work historically performed by certain groups of subjects as opposed to others.
The aesthetic categories I study thus register the broader relations of gender and capital that give rise to conflict, rather than the conflicts per se. I would describe these relations, reflected in so many of our social forms and arrangements (the commodity, value, post-Fordist production, the changing mobilization of gender to differentiate types of work, etc.) not as abstract or theoretical, however, but rather general, concretely affecting the lives of everyone around the globe in differing ways (like the categories of race, gender, and class themselves).
Sianne Ngai is professor at Stanford’s English Department. She specializes in American literature, literary and cultural theory, and feminist studies. Her books are Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012) and Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005). Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Devika Sharma interviewed Sianne Ngai by email.