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Interview with Sianne Ngai

Over the past fifteen years, Sianne Ngai has created a taxonomy of the aesthetic features of contemporary capitalism: the emotions it provokes, the judgements it elicits, and the technologies with which it simultaneously saves and takes up more of our time. Her first book, Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005), was a pioneering work in what has come to be known as affect theory, or the analysis of the role of emotions and feeling in art, politics, and the constitution of the self. It anatomised a range of ‘unprestigious’ emotions like envy and irritation, sensing within them, as well as within the works of art which express these feelings, the muffled sounds of political resistance. Her second, Our Aesthetic Categories: Cute, Zany, Interesting (Harvard University Press, 2012) showed the way in which everyday aesthetic judgements – that dress looks cute! that exhibition was… interesting – are also judgements about the way capitalism has changed, at least in the Global North, since the 1970s: a transformation wherein workers are compelled into precarious shift work relying on emotional labour, while the circulation of information has replaced off-shore industrial manufacturing.

 

Her most recent book, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgement and Capitalist Form (Harvard University Press, 2020), once again turns its attention to the kinds of offhand comments we make about works of art. Who hasn’t called a novel or an art installation a bit gimmicky, when they feel it’s too obvious or try-hard? But who has realised that the same dismissal of, say, TikTok’s lip sync feature as just another technological gimmick is registering an uncertainty about the amount of effort, and therefore time, that should go into creating works of art and technology alike? What exactly is the right amount of work that should go into a painting, a novel, or a play? Figuring out why we instinctively ask these questions, Ngai suggests, is key to unlocking and revitalising the Marxist critique of labour for our contemporary iteration of capitalism.

 

I first met Sianne Ngai in 2014 at a summer school in Cornell University known as ‘theory camp’: each year, graduate students from all around the world come to study with thinkers such as Judith Butler or Fredric Jameson. Ngai wasn’t like what I had come to expect of the slickly networking American academic. She was far more likely to ask you for a light for a cigarette before class than to offer you a business card listing a Twitter handle. She turned out to have the most infectious love of thinking I had ever encountered: this was someone who could make you as fascinated with the colour of clay animation as with the finest points of Marx’s Das Kapital; with the costumes in the musical Gypsy as much as with the unexpected jokes in the writings of the analytic philosopher W. V. O. Quine.

 

Ngai and I had planned to meet in Berlin, where she had recently spent a fellowship, to talk about gimmicks by the Spree. Instead, ours was one of the many minor plans scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic. So we conducted the interview in June and July over email between London and Chicago, where she currently lives and teaches at the University of Chicago. The slower pace of an email exchange ended up having its own advantages, as our discussion widened to take in her entire body of work, with the interview ultimately offering an introductory primer to Ngai’s distinct approach to aesthetic theory, Marxist theories of labour and value – and how not to make ‘fetch’ happen.

Q

The White Review

— I’m sorry you never made it to Berlin for the summer. What have you ended up doing during lockdown?

A

Sianne Ngai

— In Chicago, the lockdown coincided with the Spring term at my university, so I spent it frantically reskilling to teach online (a big intro undergrad lecture on fiction; a grad seminar on feminist and queer literary criticism); reading Ling Ma’s Severance (2018) and Benjy Kahan’s The Book of Minor Perverts (2019); and watching my German soap opera, Das Erste’s Rote Rosen, until it stopped filming. At the beginning of June, I left the apartment for the first time to join the protests against racism and police violence.

Q

The White Review

— There is something oddly appropriate about having to fall back on email to do this interview. I’m grateful we can still converse, but it’s a little frustrating because the whole process will take longer than meeting in person. This kind of ambivalence towards technology, time, and work is central to your new book Theory of the Gimmick. What drew you to this trifecta?

A

Sianne Ngai

— What drew me to the terms was just the gimmick itself, as a historically distinctive kind of dissatisfying aesthetic experience. Dissatisfying – yet fascinating, given the specific way in which the gimmick lets us down.

Q

The White Review

— How so? What is a gimmick? And what made you want to write about them?

A

Sianne Ngai

— The gimmick is an object – any commodity, not necessarily an artwork – that strikes us as aesthetically suspicious because of the way in which it seems to be working either too hard or too little. Our experience of its impoverished form triggers evaluations of excessive or deficient labour, which highlight the object’s false claims to value.

 

To put it more simply, the gimmick is a flagrantly unworthy, yet still perversely attractive thing. It can appear in endlessly different guises: an overpriced blender, a literary device, a weight loss programme, a cryptocurrency derivative. But in every instance the gimmick is something we perceive as overrated or wrongly valued – via a judgement about its labour in the abstract.

 

Q

The White Review

— What do you mean by an ‘impoverished form’ – what for you is a form, and how does it become impoverished?

A

Sianne Ngai

— Form is, quite simply, socially pre-shaped perception – a structured way of seeing. For Kant, it is that which we perceive through the senses without necessarily cognising it – that is, knowing ‘what’ it is, or what concept to assign to it. As such, form is the immediate – and distinctive – object of aesthetic attention.

 

By ‘impoverished’ I simply mean that the form seems unconvincing or dissatisfying. But I am also deliberately using this word for its economic overtones, to better get at the specificity of the form the gimmick presents to us.

 

Q

The White Review

— And is this impoverishment what makes it feel repulsive?

A

Sianne Ngai

— Right. A form that strikes us as deficient – aesthetically ‘poor’ – is going to turn us off. In the case of the gimmick, more specifically, our sense of aesthetic disappointment gives rise to a judgement of the object as specifically lacking in the value it promises to deliver. Strange as it sounds, I wanted to pay closer attention to this very experience/judgement of an aesthetic object as unworthy of attention, in part because it highlights a rare place in which aesthetic and economic valuations converge.

 

Q

The White Review

— So the gimmick encourages us to equate two kinds of ‘value’ we normally keep separate: economic value and aesthetic value. Labour-value theory is important to your theory of the gimmick, and indeed throughout all your work. At the risk of opening a can of Marxist worms: what is the ‘normal’ way capitalism creates value – that the gimmick then exposes as wrong?

A

Sianne Ngai

— Capitalism makes it appear as if capital itself creates value, when the reality is that the value of commodities is produced by surplus labour – or unpaid labour. The gimmick as judgement directs us back to this reality. At the same time, it suggests that there is something wrong about it.

Q

The White Review

— And then what is it we are sensing as ‘wrong’ with capitalism when we call something a gimmick?

A

Sianne Ngai

— Nothing less than its innermost laws – and their irresolvable contradictions. The way in which the system accumulates wealth through unpaid labour – and paradoxically, makes generating a surplus (for capital) necessary for workers to minimally maintain themselves. The way it requires wealth to take the monetary form of ‘value’ in the first place, binding it to the abstraction of labour and thus to social labour time.

 

Think of the gimmick this way: there is no other aesthetic category in our repertoire that links labour, time, and value together – or, better, that shows how these metrics are already linked through the generalisation of commodity production. So when we hate gimmicks, which is often lovingly – and it is crucial to see how the displeasure they generate is always inflected with pleasure – we are recognising something deeper about how the capitalist economy works. Including how it at once turns on, but also structurally conceals, the exploitation of labour in its fundamental categories. Prices, wages, interest, and so on: none of these economic forms are what they seem to be on the surface.

 

The wage, most famously, looks matter-of-factly like the price of labour. But what it actually represents is the value of the average basket of commodities needed to reproduce a worker’s labour-power. The worker always ends up working longer for the capitalist than the time it takes to earn that amount. Everything beyond that is what Marx calls surplus labour, which produces surplus value appropriated exclusively by the capitalist.

Q

The White Review

— You point to all kinds of ‘extravagantly impoverished’ objects that let us down: novels of ideas, theatrical props, financial derivatives, Google Glass, sitcom laugh tracks. What makes these gimmicks? What makes them both work too hard and too little?

A

Sianne Ngai

— A laugh track does the affective task of responding to an aesthetic commodity for us – so we don’t have to. In enabling us to delegate our enjoyment of mass culture to a machine that will enjoy in our place, as Robert Pfaller notes, it points to our ambivalence about that culture.

 

Since the gimmick hangs on our perception of something under- or overperforming – and sometimes both at once, in a concerted effort to increase productivity or profits somewhere – ageing or futuristic technologies are especially good illustrations of it. Google Glass, in its initially mistimed introduction to consumer markets in 2012, fell into this category. ‘Smart glasses’ seemed futuristic in a silly way – nobody wanted them. But this example also highlights one of the most important things about the capitalist gimmick, which is its persistent lamination to the non-gimmick. For while failing to launch as a fashion accessory, over the last five or so years Glass has been quietly re-introduced as a productivity-increasing tool for warehouse and factory workers processing real-time information while needing their hands free. The ontological instability of the gimmick – the ease with which it can flip into a regular device, depending on any number of social, historical and economic contingencies – is internal to this capitalist form.

Q

The White Review

— And the novel of ideas – in what way is that a gimmick?

A

Sianne Ngai

— As many of its own modernist practitioners are quick to point out (Marcel Proust, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Musil, Hermann Broch, J. M. Coetzee), the novel of ideas has always relied on obtrusive devices: extensive conversations on long walks or at dinner parties (the use of characters as ‘mouthpieces’) and sudden insertions of authorial commentary (what Claire De Obaldia calls ‘essayism’). Dependent as it is on these contrivances – which are also tellingly anti-novelistic, bending the novel in the direction of a play or a lecture – the novel of ideas is not so much ‘a’ gimmick as innately gimmick-prone – and so much so that one wonders why this susceptibility hasn’t been more seriously considered as the one feature that ultimately makes the genre cohere.

 

The most interesting instances of this aesthetically risky artform are therefore comedies that, in their presentation of readymade or pre-existing ‘ideas’, explicitly reflect on the commodification or reification – the becoming-thing-like – of thought in capitalist culture. And that in the effort to represent this reification – which is certainly alienating but also, counterintuitively, remarkably productive for making culture – lean into the gimmick’s aesthetically dubious form.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think this attraction-repulsion to readymade or pre-existing ideas can explain the attitude we sometimes see in ‘theory’ itself, whether in art or criticism? The kind of judgement that goes: ‘This is just applied theory!’ Or the accusation levelled at master theories like psychoanalysis or Marxism, which are dismissed for explaining too much and too little at the same time. Is there a gimmickry of theory?

A

Sianne Ngai

— Yes – but no more than there is a gimmickry of anything else: of food, cars, finance, real estate, education, business, sports, fashion, etc. The form can pop up anywhere, which is one of the astounding things about it. And as we’ve noted, gimmicks can flip into non-gimmicks – non-problematic, ordinary, innocuous devices – with remarkable ease.

 

That said, conceptual art – art with a noticeable will to presenting ‘a concept’, whether in the medium of dance or photography or narrative fiction – does seem plagued by a particularly intense ‘gimmick problem’ – which is to say, intense anxiety about whether ‘value’ is where it is purported to be. And so in fact is art in general. Why all the fuss? Why all the labour? Is it truly ‘labour’?

 

Q

The White Review

— What’s your favourite gimmick? Or: which gimmick’s embarrassing effort do you enjoy the most?

A

Sianne Ngai

— ‘Fetch’. This is the slogan Lacey Chabert’s character, Gretchen Wieners, is desperately trying to ‘make happen’ in Mean Girls (2004) before Regina George (played by Rachel McAdams) shoots her down by essentially calling it out as a gimmick: ‘Stop trying to make “fetch” happen, Gretchen. It’s not happening.’ But maybe – and this uncertainty gets to the heart of the gimmick – ‘fetch’ actually has happened? A colleague and I once experimentally tried to make it happen in the English Department at Stanford. It didn’t work.

 

I’m also fond of The Dynamophone, The Detectorium, and all the supposedly time-saving, performance-enhancing devices sold by American inventor Hugo Gernsback’s Electro Importing Company at the start of the twentieth century. Have you seen a picture of The Isolator? It’s hilarious – basically a metal sensory deprivation suit the worker wears to eliminate distractions from the task at hand. An entire system of industrial management boiled down to a onesie!

Q

The White Review

— But a gimmick for you is not just something we find in capitalist culture: it’s also an aesthetic judgement. And this is what makes it what you call an ‘aesthetic category’. Terms like ‘aesthetic’, at least in the art world, often lack precise meaning. How do you define ‘aesthetic’, and an ‘aesthetic category’?

A

Sianne Ngai

— ‘Aesthetic’ names a relation to any object of our attention – again, it doesn’t have to be an artwork – inflected by a feeling of pleasure, or displeasure, or sometimes both mixed together. The relation is therefore affective and spontaneous – and yet there is a kind of ‘distance’ involved, in that the object we are responding to is a mere form or appearance, and not something to which we immediately feel the need to assign a meaning or use. As Kant stresses in his infamous account of beauty as a ‘disinterested’ pleasure, we need not even have a stake in whether the form which appears to us really exists.

 

This makes the aesthetic relation distinct from our relation to other objects of emotion. In feeling fear about an impending recession or my parent’s dementia or what seems to be a rabid rat in the street, I certainly have a stake in whether the object is real. And it is also what sets objects of aesthetic experience apart from those of our cognition, will, or sexual desire. This is not to say that aesthetic relations can’t give rise to and seem to overlap with these other ways of relating – they do so all the time, and that is when things quite literally get interesting! But in an aesthetic relationship we respond to the object first and foremost as a form; very simply, to the way in which the object merely appears. And not – at least not immediately – to what it means or can be used for.

 

Most importantly, in any aesthetic relation, our encounter with form is compulsively accompanied by evaluation. This is the case even when the feelings that trigger it are minimal in their affective intensity or ambivalently combined.

Q

The White Review

— In the beginning of Theory of the Gimmick, you also describe an aesthetic category as a moment when a judgement and a form are ‘sutured by affect into a spontaneous experience’. It’s a fabulous phrase. What is an affect, in your work, and how does it fuse a form and a judgement together?

A

Sianne Ngai

— I’m glad you asked this question. I put things this way to emphasise a point which still remains controversial in aesthetic theory: that there is no aesthetic experience – no affective perception of form as form – without judgement. This was Kant’s position, shared by Clement Greenberg and Gerard Genette. Nietzsche, predictably, expressed contempt for this supposed reduction of sensory, embodied experience to distanced evaluation, but doesn’t offer much beside feeling to make his position stick.

 

I regard aesthetic experience as double-sided – as containing both a way of seeing (perception of form) and a way of speaking (verbal evaluation). Both ways are collective and historically specific. Affect joins them in the sense that it is what perception and evaluation have in common – it accompanies the former, it underlies the latter. It is what makes the categorically separate acts of seeing and judging seem simultaneous or to coincide in our experience of the aesthetic object, binding the two moments empirically.

 

And what is affect? Most simply, it is feeling. Theorists often use the word to single out feeling in a minimal or indeterminate state – or feeling that is not named or shaped into an emotion. I, however, often use ‘affect’ more broadly as a category inclusive of emotions as well – as well as the dynamic in which each can sometimes develop or devolve into the other. Both simple, unstructured, asignifying affects and narratively complex, content-rich emotions are involved in aesthetic experiences.

 

Q

The White Review

— So affects are present in the moment of aesthetic perception – how something feels to us – and in the moment of evaluation – also how it feels to us, just in a different way. Are our affective responses always value judgements about the object that triggers them?

A

Sianne Ngai

— Our feelings don’t necessarily lead to appraisals of things as good or bad. But there can be no aesthetic evaluation in the absence of feeling. Indeed, aesthetic judgements, unlike cognitive or moral judgements, cannot stem from anything other than feeling. And for this reason, spontaneous feeling, whether strong or weak, signals the inextricable coupling of discursive judgement to the perception of form. It points to the seam – it is the seam – that joins a way of speaking – a way of facing or addressing others – to a way of seeing. This compulsory joining of evaluation to perception, or of discourse to form (even as the perception of the latter continues to be stereotypically imagined as reverently silent), is what makes the experience properly aesthetic. How we talk to each other – how we verbally share or make our feelings of pleasure and displeasure public – is immanent to aesthetic experience. It is not an auxiliary matter.

Q

The White Review

— This is the other aspect of aesthetic judgements you stress – in demanding universal acceptance, it shows our judgements are always already social.

A

Sianne Ngai

— That’s right: a relation to others is presupposed by every aesthetic experience, and what alerts Kant to this is our demand for affective accordance – for everyone’s feelings of pleasure or displeasure to be in sync with our own. Strangely, we cannot say that ‘to me X is beautiful’, or, ‘in my opinion, X is beautiful’, even if this is a literal description of what is going on when we judge. Rather, we are ‘illogically’ compelled to put our judgement in the form of an objective or factual statement: X is beautiful. The objectivity of the statement encodes an implicit demand that X’s beauty be recognised by you and everyone else as well. Now on a certain level this demand is utterly presumptuous. So what does the often socially inconvenient compulsion to make it, regardless – and as Kant points out, this compulsion is universal – reveal about the structure of an aesthetic experience?

 

What it tells us, Kant says, is that while aesthetic experience is irreducibly subjective – spontaneously triggered by feeling in our perception of form, it is an experience no one else can have ‘for’ me – it is strangely not for this reason ‘private’. It is, counterintuitively, something we can never in the deepest sense ‘have’ alone, even if the encounter literally takes place with no one around you. And this is revealed by the everyday language of aesthetic judgement. When it becomes clear that my seemingly private evaluation is really a (barely disguised) demand for your agreement, we start to see that aesthetic experience is profoundly intersubjective. We see that it is even less ultimately about objects than our relation to other subjects.

 

And specific aesthetic judgements – like ‘gimmick’ – often cast the features of a particular historical society in sharper relief. What are all of us, in ways we might not be entirely conscious of, accurately noticing about the crisis-prone capitalist world we live in – and about the relations that bind us together in it – when we call something a gimmick? Even though social and cultural differences guarantee that we will disagree about which specific objects fit the bill (you might think my egg cooker or Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic novel A Void (1969) are gimmicks; I will insist that both are ingenious inventions), that disagreement is never the relativistic scandal it sometimes at first seems to be. What matters is that when asked to say why we think our various commodities fit the designation of a gimmick, our explanations will be strikingly the same.

 

Q

The White Review

— What is so fascinating about the gimmick, as you describe it, is its everyday quality. This interest in what everyday aesthetic judgements can tell us about the nature of capitalist society is present from your earliest work. Before we come back to these questions, I’d like to backtrack a bit to find out why you’ve been pursuing them for so long. Your parents were immigrants from China and Hong Kong, and you grew up in Virginia. In what way, if at all, does your biography shape your work? Or looking back, can you see any influences now?

A

Sianne Ngai

— I think the aspect of my socialisation most detectable in my work is my never feeling at home anywhere. The only place I’ve ever felt I was ‘from’ was Los Angeles – but I only lived there for four years. And I didn’t feel like I belonged to the actual neighbourhood I lived in (Venice); only, somewhat impossibly, with Los Angeles as a whole.

 

In any case, colleagues have often told me it’s hard to see where I fit in the academy. One friend once joked that I’d boxed myself into a corner: too ‘philosophical’ for cultural studies; too ‘cultural studies’ for philosophy. I think she meant that people who come to my work for the ‘cute’ are likely to stop reading when they run into a dense chunk of Adorno, while Adorno fans might leave when they realise I am discussing his concept of art’s ‘muteness’ alongside Hello Kitty (who has no mouth). But I’d like to think most people see that tracing the relays between these ideas is practical and even necessary when one is analysing something as culturally pervasive as cuteness. And that it’s not an inherently radical ‘move’.

 

Q

The White Review

— You studied at Brown and then Harvard. Were there any thinkers there in particular that influenced you? The philosopher Stanley Cavell and the literary critic Barbara Johnson for example – they crop up as people you think with across all your books.

A

Sianne Ngai

— Cavell felt estranged from what was going on in most US philosophy departments, which was analytical philosophy. So seeing how he made his own way through it had an impact, I think. But he was the biggest influence in getting me to see how aesthetic judgements are complex speech acts: affective verbal performances that are at once failure-prone and also creative, improvisational objects in their own right, inviting aesthetic response and evaluation in turn. I continue to linger with the implications of this idea, which I tried to bring out in Theory of the Gimmick in particular.

 

Barbara Johnson was inspiring for the way in which she asked playful questions that kind of ripped a hole in the way you thought you understood something. My other advisor was the ecocritic Lawrence Buell, who showed how it is possible to start new conversations.

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve also published two volumes of poetry, and you’ve bounced off avant-garde poetry across your work: John Yau, Harryette Mullen, Juliana Spahr, to name a few. What kind of poetry in particular attracts you and why?

A

Sianne Ngai

— I quit writing poetry twenty years ago when it dawned on me that I was not so great at it – or maybe more specifically, when I realised that other people were so brilliant at it that it made my mediocrity obvious. Since then I feel like poetry has gotten so rich and complex across the board that there is way more to productively like than dislike. (A younger version of me would be shocked to hear me say this.) I don’t systematically read poetry, and because I’m not on social media I’m always out of the loop. But whenever I pick up a random magazine or find myself browsing online I’m astonished by just how darn good everything is: Diana Hamilton, Cathy Park Hong, Daniel Borzutzky, Rob Halpern, Claudia Rankine, Joshua Clover, Wendy Trevino, Chris Nealon, Heriberto Yepez, Sandra Simonds, Mónica de la Torre, Rae Armantrout, Amy De’Ath, C. A. Conrad, the late Sean Bonney… And of course Spahr, whom I have kept returning to and writing about at various moments over the last – wow – twenty-five years? Looking at this list of likes I’d say I am drawn to poetry that is often signalling its ambivalence about poetry. And which is funny while being angry or has a hard-to-pin-down affect. ‘There is a darkness at the edge of tone . . .’

Q

The White Review

— Ambivalence: that seems to be an attitude you have to all the phenomena you study. These days, in contrast, criticism feels very monovalent – if that makes sense? In academia, it’s either reparative attachment or suspicious critique. Online, either the gushing rave or the Twitter takedown. What can ambivalence offer a critic, a writer, an artist?

A

Sianne Ngai

— Thank you for pointing this out – it’s exactly as you describe it. The ‘one-sidedness’ of criticism is everywhere – and even in places where one thinks critical thinking should be sharpest or most reflective. It is frankly very alienating; it’s like people deliberately set out to forget everything they learned. And often the criticism is humourless – especially when it is relentlessly affirmative. Lauren Berlant has been writing on humourlessness as one of our contemporary moment’s most telling tones – she and I talk about this a lot.

 

I think ambivalence is less important as an attitude one brings to the things one studies – though it certainly is that – than as an affective situation already encoded in the specific kinds of aesthetic phenomenon I pay attention to. Which are capitalist phenomena – forms and judgements unique to a world shaped by universalised commodity production – and therefore inflected by the logic of the commodity form. Which means they are aesthetically ambiguous – compromised – and lacking in the moral or ethical prestige adhering to concepts like beauty.

 

It’s already in the object, in other words. What the capitalist gimmick is, ‘objectively’, is that which repulses us but to which we are also reluctantly attracted. And of course the cute, interesting, and zany are experiences/evaluations that involve mixed or conflicting feelings.

Q

The White Review

— That ‘darkness at the edge of tone’ from Joshua Clover’s ‘Two Deaths’ – that could be a summary of what you wrote about in your first book Ugly Feelings. Last year the critic Hua Hsu wrote that a lot of early affect theory now appears uncannily prophetic, predicting a new centrality of emotions in politics. Does that accord with how you see Ugly Feelings now?

A

Sianne Ngai

— Just as with the ancient art of rhetoric, I would say that emotions have and will always been central to politics. Hua Hsu was describing Lauren Berlant, who writes explicitly and powerfully on American politics, and who saw Trump’s victory as a real possibility when most academic left-liberals were dismissing it. Ugly Feelings focuses more on ideology than the political sphere. I don’t think of it as prophetic, but I like to think of it as accurate in what it was diagnosing.

Q

The White Review

— When I was re-reading Ugly Feelings for this interview, one possibility offered by envy did seem newly necessary. In your study of conflicts within feminism, you suggest that the antagonism trigged by envy shows that ‘not identifying might be the enabling condition for female homosociality’. Can antagonism enable other collective formations not based on identification?

A

Sianne Ngai

— Yes! This becomes especially apparent in the case of struggles where, we might say, the scene or the act takes structural precedence over the agents in determining their significance. (I’m channelling Kenneth Burke’s ‘dramatistic’ theory of action here, which breaks every action down into five elements: Scene, Act, Agency, Actor, Purpose). Riots are a good example, as I learned from reading Joshua Clover’s Riot. Strike. Riot (2016). Rioters do not appear to be a ‘collective formation’ in the way that organised workers in a strike do. But they are. Even if they have nothing in common other than their dispossession, writes Clover, they have a specific goal (to set prices of market goods) and their struggle unfolds in a specific scene (the context of consumption as opposed to production).

Q

The White Review

— Your next book, Our Aesthetic Categories, focused more on ambivalent aesthetic categories: cute, zany, and interesting. What, for you, are aesthetic categories, and why were you drawn to these in particular?

A

Sianne Ngai

— What I call an ‘aesthetic category’ is simply the name we assign to a specific kind of aesthetic experience. It is a double-sided phenomenon. On the one hand it involves a style – a conventionalised or pre-shaped way of seeing form. So, for example, ‘cute’ as the overarching look of malleable, infantile, feminine, and above all, powerless things. This is why the paradigmatic cute thing is a stuffed animal – and disturbingly, as Daniel Harris notes, an injured one. Or a Little Debbie or Hostess snack cake: sugary, cheap, and all too easy to consume. But an aesthetic category also involves an evaluative speech act: ‘cute!’ as what we learn to say in response to objects we perceive in the way described above. So what I call an aesthetic category couples perception and evaluation together. It designates the very relation between a stylised form and a verbal judgement; a collective, structured way of seeing, and an equally structured way of speaking.

 

In Our Aesthetic Categories, I argue for the importance of three everyday aesthetic categories which speak to the ways in which late capitalist subjects work, exchange and consume. As a hyperactive style of performing akin to affective labour, the zany is ‘about’ deindustrialised production. The interesting, a minimalist aesthetic involving the recognition of difference prior to it being assigned a meaning, is tied to the circulation of information. And cuteness is about our phantasmatic relation to commodities as consumers, as reflected in the saying, ‘You’re so cute I could just eat you up.’ I suggest that these three categories, in referring to the activities that most bind people together (if in ways that often feel atomising and asocial), are critical for grasping our historical moment.

 

It’s not just that the zany, cute and interesting infiltrate the look, sound and texture of so many objects in culture, from corporate management styles to video art to Instagram feeds. These are concepts we use to process the hypercommodified, data-mined, performance-driven world of late capitalism. And for this reason, they are also central to the language in which we talk about its equivocal pleasures.

 

I’ve always been drawn to things that are repulsive and attractive at the same time, and which for this reason elicit conflicting desires. Cuteness involves a mixture of tenderness and aggression; the performative style of zaniness is supposedly fun but actually stressful. The co-presence of clashing feelings points to the ambivalence most of us feel about capitalism itself, as a system generating enormous misery as well as wealth.

 

Q

The White Review

Our Aesthetic Categories was where you first fully started to explore what happens when we recognise, as you say, that ‘aesthetic judgements are complex speech acts’, an awareness also central to Theory of the Gimmick. It’s such a tantalising proposition – it takes aesthetic judgements down from the abstract heights of theory and looks at what they do in everyday life. What does it mean to analyse an aesthetic judgement as a speech-act? Can you give us an example?

A

Sianne Ngai

— It means to understand that judgement – let’s say, of something as ‘cute’ – as more than just the application of a concept, but rather as a stylised and affective way of addressing others: that is, as a profoundly public kind of verbal performance. In the case of ‘cute,’ for instance, the specific way in which the evaluation gets performed brings out something crucial about its meaning. Spontaneously finding the cupcake or baby shoes or whatever it is cute, my body hunches over, making itself smaller, and my voice starts to soften, breaking out into a coo. With this, the cute commodity, for all its powerlessness, has suddenly shown that it has power over me: enough to deform the very way I speak, as if in unconscious imitation of its malleable form.

 

Similarly, when I tell you that I find a novel or film ‘interesting . . .’ (and these ellipses and the temporality they introduce are significant), my saying so is a tacit invitation to you to ask me why. Calling something interesting is thus a way of encouraging others to embolden me to find the concepts for my pleasure – my spontaneous feeling of interest – unavailable in the instant of evaluation. And so once again, the verbal performance of an aesthetic evaluation – ‘interesting’ as a thing we say in a specific context, in a specific way – brings out something about what the interesting qua aesthetic experience basically is: pleasure, in search of a concept, that fundamentally presupposes and relies on my discursive relation to others.

Q

The White Review

— You mentioned one of your advisors, Stanley Cavell, as one inspiration for this approach. For him these speech acts are also ‘performative’ – is this dimension important for you too, or how do you understand it?

A

Sianne Ngai

— To understand aesthetic judgement as a speech act or ‘performative’ is also simply to understand it as speech which intends to accomplish an action – here, to get you, or other independently judging subjects, to see the object in the same way I do, or get our feelings about it in accord. Crucially, this is something my specific performance may not succeed in doing. There is always, as Cavell notes, a risk of ‘rebuff’ with the specific class of speech acts that aesthetic judgement belongs to. These ‘performatives’ are more like acts of complimenting, insulting, or apologising (where you, the audience of my utterance, are the main determiner of whether the act has succeeded) than acts of betting, baptising, or sentencing (where the success of the act rests primarily on the ‘I’ or speaker, and whether they have authority to perform it).

 

Basically, the former class of performatives are less juridical, less bound by standardised procedures or conventions, and do not require explicitly naming what is being done. Hence there are ways of judging things cute and gimmicky without using these words: by bending over the puppy and squealing a little, or writing a satirical product review. Aesthetic judgements can be sites of remarkable rhetorical creativity and improvisation, Cavell’s work suggests. They are therefore capable of becoming artistic events in their own right – and judged on aesthetic grounds in turn. Sometimes people’s ways of sharing their pleasure can turn us off, even when we actually agree that the object they are gushing about is beautiful.

 

What does all of this point to? Once again, to the fact that our aesthetic judgements are ultimately less about objects than about our relationships to other subjects. As Kant is already suggesting in The Critique of Judgement, how we speak to one another about our aesthetic experience is paradoxically immanent, not secondary, to the very having of an aesthetic experience.

Q

The White Review

Our Aesthetic Categories also shares with Theory of the Gimmick a claim for the importance of aesthetic theory: you end saying that it is ‘aesthetic theory that needs to be resuscitated in our contemporary moment’. Why do we need aesthetic theory to understand contemporary capitalism?

A

Sianne Ngai

— This is a great question. Why indeed? I would say: because a processing of capitalism is always already taking place at the aesthetic level – in the styles of our cultural productions and our ways of responding to them. This way of understanding capitalism is of course different from how we grasp the system practically, through participation in everyday economic activities like getting a loan, or intellectually, by, say, reading Marx. And yet it is a legitimate one which has gone unrecognised. Forms and judgements like the gimmick just aren’t taken seriously as aesthetic phenomena. And this is because aesthetic theory itself remains a generally backward discourse, dominated by moralising thinkers. It needs to be ‘resuscitated’ in the sense of being revamped. Given my involvement I obviously don’t think it should be thrown out altogether! But I sometimes come close to feeling this way.

Q

The White Review

Our Aesthetic Categories also shares with Theory of the Gimmick an equally strong claim for the importance of Marxism in understanding the present; in particular, Marxist labour-value theory, which, as you note, has tended to be sidelined by (some) theories of immaterial labour and (most) theorists of biopolitics. Why do we need labour-value theory of the kind you draw on in Theory of the Gimmick?

A

Sianne Ngai

— Even if many people in the world are not wage labourers – whether because they are temporarily out of work, or because they could never be fully employed in the first place – we live in a world overarchingly shaped by wage labour. And hence in a world in which the appropriation of unpaid labour, which of course happened in feudal and ancient, slave-based agrarian economies too, takes the unique form of an appropriation of ‘surplus value.’

 

And yet this exploitation is obfuscated, legally and formally, by the wage itself and all of the basic forms of capitalism. This is the reason we need value theory. We need value theory precisely in order to question ‘value’ and its determination by ‘social labour time’ – in order to formulate an effective critique of its sham universality. Some post-Marxists think this can be done without labour-value theory but I am on the side of those who disagree. For as George Caffentzis notes, value theory is the only theory which has been able to produce ‘an apparently precise and measurable definition of exploitation.’ More superficially (or you could say, formalistically), it offers us a theory of social forms – of historical categories that are collectively produced – that dovetails with my effort to study an aesthetic form that is essentially indistinguishable from that of the commodity as such.

Q

The White Review

— That level of theoretical abstraction can seem hard to grasp (at least to me when I don’t have my Capital reading guides on hand). Yet what unites all your objects of study is their ordinary, everyday quality. Given that the gimmick ‘tells us what we already know’ about capitalism, is there something utopian in the premise of this book: that we all ‘already know’ it doesn’t have to be this way? Even if this utopian moment is only what Adorno called the merest ‘glimmer of messianic light in the here and now, an anticipation of reconciliation in the real world.’
A

Sianne Ngai

— How lovely of you to end on this note. Yes, I truly think so.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer and critic who lives in London. His writing has appeared in Granta, The White Review, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, Art Review, art-agenda, Studio International, and elsewhere. He is writing a book about queer happiness.

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