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Contemporary Literature 47.1 (2006) 141-147

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Ugly Feelings, Powerful Sensibilities

University of California, Berkeley
Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005. viii + 422 pp. $29.95.

Wow! That is almost all that I have to say about Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings. This is an amazing book, stunning in its depth and range, exemplary in its learning, and almost continually surprising in its inventiveness. Ngai seems to have read and seen almost every text and movie, and not just read and seen but imagined or reimagined them with dazzling intensity. And she writes a clear, precise prose replete with striking antitheses and inventive analogies. Most important for me, Ngai is the best-read theorist I have ever encountered—for her scope and even more for her ability to find the perfectly apposite argument to engage or to extend as she develops her own case.

Ugly Feelings has two central concerns: to analyze how writers and artists in several media have engaged the variety of ugly feelings that, like minor literatures, usually are ignored by critics who deal with the big passions, and to show how through engaging those feelings characterized by "obstructed agency," the artists confront art's own powerlessness, thereby also establishing forms of agency capable of recuperating "several of these negative affects for their critical productivity" (3). Ugly feelings become challenges for artists because they are sites of negative affect experienced primarily as a sense of suspended or blocked or self-canceling agency: [End Page 141]

[T]he feelings I examine here are explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release. In fact, most of these feelings tend to interfere with the outpouring of other emotions. Moods like irritation and anxiety, for instance, are defined by a flatness or ongoingness entirely opposed to the "suddenness" on which Aristotle's aesthetics of fear depends. And unlike rage, which cannot be sustained indefinitely, less dramatic feelings like envy and paranoia have a remarkable capacity for duration. If Ugly Feelings is a bestiary of affects, in other words, it is one filled with rats and possums, rather than lions, its categories of feeling generally being, well, weaker and nastier.

At its most ambitious, then, this book is a response to Hegel, basing negativity not on self-consciousness but on affective conditions haunted by the paranoiac fear that every feeling of subjective agency may be only the objectifying effect of some causal chain. Ngai brilliantly distinguishes three kinds of negatives, all of which pervade ugly feelings: experiential negativity because they evoke pain, semantic negativity because they are "saturated with socially stigmatizing meanings and values," and syntactic negativity because they are "organized by trajectories of repulsion rather than attraction" (11). Such negatives are not easily given dialectical roles, because ugly feelings "tend to produce an unpleasurable feeling about the feeling" (10), leaving the agent detached from any sense of power or vehemence. But this difficulty in reversing the negativity or at least putting it to use is what most attracts Ngai to the subject, because that task provides a compelling challenge for artists to make powerlessness a self-conscious condition of positive agency—if only because the experience of powerlessness is essentially the experience of most artists marginalized by late-capitalist social structures. Hence almost every chapter concludes an elaborate reading by celebrating a distinctive path to the recovery of some political agency.

After an absolutely exemplary laying out of the argument in the first chapter, there are individual chapters on tone, animatedness, envy, irritation, anxiety, "stuplimity," and paranoia, with an afterword on disgust. Some chapters focus on particular texts, others weave analyses of works in various media; all make fascinating [End Page 142] reading. I will skip Ngai's discussion of tone for a moment, since her view of it as an overall aesthetic phenomenon points to states that are not negative, for reasons that create problems for her general argument.

Animatedness becomes negative in racialized contexts because it "loses its generally positive associations with human spiritedness... and comes...


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