- Orbit Around a Void
“Now I’m happy for a time and interested”: a state of being “interested,” a disposition to prefer one thing to another, replaces definite interests and consistent preferences . . . . He’s shopping without a list.”1
Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (Passagenwerk, 1927–40) led readers into the dream underside of everyday life in the heyday of bourgeois capitalism. Benjamin’s high modernist notebook assumes both a comfort with formal gesture and the antisocial solitude of the European high literary reader of the early twentieth century, a person comfortable with the indirection of posited and disconnected things at the level of the text. Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories similarly plunges her reader into the dream underside of everyday life in our heyday of global capitalism, but hers is a plain style that feels personal, comfortable, and fluid—almost chatty. True to her training with Stanley Cavell, her style is at home in the ordinary, not wandering as the flâneur in the extraordinary. Hers is an approachable, infectious book, written around a set of tightly argued theses. Yet, Our Aesthetic Categories is an heiress of the Arcades Project.
Like Ngai, Benjamin thought we can unlock the meaning of quotidian things from the perspective of the tensions generated in them through their relation to the formal causes of capitalism. It may seem [End Page 329] strange to invoke the Aristotelian notion of formal cause to explain Benjamin’s work, but one of his core assumptions is that the dynamics of capitalism literally form the way things appear in our world, straight down to their contradictions—and to the utopian possibility of overturning them. The mass-manufactured angel that even a poor wretch could buy under the translucent glass of an arcade in the 8th arrondissement grants a small piece of forgetting to end the long day of work and to assuage the children who sense their parents’ anxiety over the next rent due. This forgetting is also a reminder of the higher order of noncalculative things once solid, now melting into air. Yet the manufactured quality of the trinket reduces its dreams to clichés. Stamped on the product is the formal quality of capitalism: exhausting what it can use, spreading its wares to all, dividing and maintaining class distinctions, reducing the order of what is in itself good, and deadening ideals through the appearance of their alienation from us.2 Benjamin’s brilliance is to teach a way of experiencing everyday objects that includes their wider productive context, social relations and all.
Ngai’s thesis is that our forms of judgment similarly betray the formal causes of capitalism in our current round of global restructuring. She thinks our minds are made up, too. Yet, just as Benjamin liberates us by showing us how to read objects, so Ngai might show us the direction to liberate ourselves by helping us read our judgments. Hers is a fascinating combination of critical theory with Cavell’s focus on Kantian aesthetics, and, although she does not mention Hannah Arendt, her approach would be worthy of Arendt’s work from Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) on. Arendt ended her life working on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (Critik der Urtheilskraft, 1790), wanting to understand—after Adolf Eichmann’s banal evil—how people keep alive a sense of meaning in the absence of clear rules to guide us. Ngai argues that in today’s round of capitalist restructuring—a period stretching roughly from the onset of post-Fordism to today, but whose aesthetic judgments were forming from the end of the Second World War on—three forms of aesthetic judgment betray the formal contradictions of being a subject in capitalism. These three forms help us grasp where and how we are. Yet they are all so minor or paradoxical as to be aliens to the high tradition of post-Kantian aesthetics with its emphasis on the beautiful and the sublime. They are alien to Kant’s inheritors in twentieth-century art criticism at...