- OUR AESTHETIC CATEGORIES: Zany, Cute, Interesting by Sianne Ngai
For Sianne Ngai, the “zany,” the “cute,” and the “interesting” are aesthetic categories which demonstrate “how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism” (1). That these are “aesthetic” categories is part of Ngai’s point: traditional aesthetic theory has neglected these categories because they seem to be the opposite of the serious, contemplative stance such theory encourages. Ngai’s approach is therefore two-fold: to show how these categories can be read as aesthetic theory; and to show how important they are to our understanding of contemporary culture.
There is a lot of work that takes place within these seemingly minor categories. The cute, Ngai argues, is an “uncanny reversal” that triggers both empathy and aversion (87).To regard something as cute is to diminish it, often turning an object into its opposite. Cuteness is therefore paradoxical, as cute objects often seduce us into believing that their cuteness can be grasped and manipulated. The “interesting,” Ngai posits, is a “calm, if not necessarily weak, affective intensity whose minimalism is somehow understood to secure its link to ratiocinative cognition and to lubricate the formation of social ties” (113). People are brought together by what they find to be mutually interesting, which makes “‘serious’ subcultural groups cohere in the first place” (172). As such, to say that something—someone—is interesting is almost an invitation, a way of beginning to build a community. The “zany” “speaks to a politically ambiguous erosion of the distinction between playing and working” (188). The “zany” figure often puts the emotional intensity of play to work, and in doing [End Page 96] so, shrinks the distinction between work and play. The manic, frantic extremes that zany characters engage in are “not just funny but angry,” an indication of a precarious world which never truly stops working (218).
Ngai’s range is encyclopedic: while such range is insightful, the book often feels unrestrained as Ngai attempts to negotiate the entire history of modern and postmodern aesthetic theory while simultaneously performing contemporary cultural criticism. The result is a voluminous prose style which not all will have the patience to peruse. But for those who are interested in what traditional aesthetic theory has slighted as marginal, and for those who are interested in the aesthetics of contemporary culture, Our Aesthetic Categories is worthy reading.