- Our Aesthetic Condition
Sianne Ngai’s important new book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, offers a revisionary account of the contemporary. The framework of the account is familiar enough. For Ngai, as for the tradition of Marxist criticism that she engages, the history of the present is the history of the rise of capitalist modernity. That is, while the history of modernity is not reducible to the developments of capital, it is nevertheless underwritten by them. At the core of Ngai’s account of the present is Fredric Jameson’s claim that the contemporary condition is structured by capitalism’s real or total subsumption of the aesthetic. In a well-known passage from Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)—a passage Ngai both cites and endorses—Jameson states that the present is characterized by “a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm.”1 This expansion represents the “dissolution of an autonomous sphere of culture” (48) and thus the elimination of the aesthetic autonomy definitive of modernism: “What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally” (4). [End Page 192] The majority of studies underwritten by this account understand the subsumption that Jameson describes to imply the impending or accomplished elimination of the aesthetic as a category. Accordingly, such studies analyze contemporary “works of art” as cultural rather than aesthetic productions, or they theorize residual and/or emergent modes of autonomy made available by the aesthetic’s subsumption. (There are, alternately, studies of the contemporary that understand it as a period characterized by the persistence or institutionalization of modernist modes of aesthetic autonomy.) For Ngai, the contemporary is, indeed, characterized by the complete integration of aesthetic production into commodity production. However, she argues that this integration represents not the (impending or accomplished) elimination of the aesthetic, but its dissemination.
Ngai argues that, yes, the contemporary is characterized by “what Jameson describes as a ‘total culturalization’ by a process of radical commodification” (23), and that this “total culturalization” represents an unprecedented enervation of the aesthetic and trivialization of art (21). No longer able “to serve as an image of nonalienated labor, as it has done ever since the inception of aesthetic discourse in the eighteenth century,” art is no longer able to perform its “more specifically modernist, twentieth-century mission of producing perceptual shocks” (21). In contrast to Jameson, however, and hence to the now-standard account of postmodernity, Ngai reads the trivialization of art and the enervation of the aesthetic as aspects of “the aesthetic’s hyperbolic expansion” (242): we inhabit a “totally aestheticized present,” according to her, a present in which the aesthetic is both fundamentally weakened and radically generalized (19). In “this hyperaestheticized world” (20), the “aesthetic function” has been disseminated so that “aesthetic experience has come to saturate virtually every nook and cranny of the world that postmodern subjects inhabit” (241).
Our Aesthetic Categories thus argues that recent critical studies endeavoring “to ‘rescue’ beauty or ‘recover’ the aesthetic” make a fundamental mistake about our contemporary condition (241). While correctly registering that the aesthetic has been enervated, these studies mistakenly understand this diminution to indicate that the aesthetic is currently “imperiled” (241). What they do not [End Page 193] acknowledge is that the contemporary diminution of the aesthetic is, in fact, an aspect of a generalization of the aesthetic function. Ngai asserts that this critical oversight signals a structural failure of contemporary aesthetic theory, resulting from its abiding commitment to the categories of the beautiful and the sublime—a commitment that, she argues, carries two major consequences. The first is that it interferes with the recognition and hence the theorization of “aesthetic categories” as such. The second consequence, which follows from the first, is that aesthetic theory is constitutively incapable of recognizing and analyzing the particular set of aesthetic categories that characterize contemporary “aesthetic practice” (242).
Ngai thus aims to renovate aesthetic theory, and to do so by theorizing “the metacategory of ‘aesthetic categories’” (56). Such a theorization, she argues, will make it possible for contemporary aesthetic theory...