Sianne Ngai – “Our Aesthetic Categories” (2010)

PMLA, 125.4

Ngai makes the argument that our aesthetic experience is always mediated by certain aesthetic categories, at once both affective and conceptual. She proposes the zany, interesting, and cute, each of which are associated with a “binding process” of capitalism:

Production, in the case of the zany (an aesthetic about performance as not just artful play but also affective labor)l circulation, in the case of the interesting (a serial, recursive aesthetic of informational relays and communicative excahnge); and consumption, in the case of the cute (an aesthetic disclosing the surprisingly wide spectrum of feelings, ranging from tenderness to aggression, that we harbor toward ostensively subordinate and unthreatening commodities). (948-9)

These three categories all touch on the ambiguous oscillation between labor and play that all artworks are forced through. They are undeniably important but also trivial. It is their triviality that marks historical positioning of the aesthetic today. How can triviality (small, transient, etc.) be “defended” as such? While some would relegate these categories to mere style,” Ngai argues for their status as discursive judgments (of course, they are both): she points out that Kant’s “taste” is constituted by the “error” of “confusing” subjective judgments with objective fact as well as the way in which the aesthetic subject toggles between aesthetic and nonaesthetic (practical) judgment. One wonders, in fact, how much this essay is merely updating Kant.

She uses Jameson’s Postemodernism–where he distinguishes between taste, analysis and evaluation–as means for showing how taste can get transformed from pointing out that something is “merely interesting” to an evaluation–a higher form of judgment–of the very category of taste that made the original judgment possible. In other words, judgments of taste do not need to apply to specific artworks, but can be directed at (and instigated by?? we can’t let that part of Kant drop out, right?) whole genres, bodies of work, historical situations (and the dispositif tout court?).

Very interesting overall in the way that it makes the “world of taste,” i.e. postmodern consumerist culture, into a “useful tool” for political evaluation. [Relate this to Arendt and Bourdieu and rigorously mark out the differences–there are many.] Still, I feel like the affective dimension drops out towards the end…gets sublated by a critical practice based on a more or less “appropriative” model. The strength of the article is in its ability to see affect, and its immanent connection to economic and cultural forms of exchange, as marking out the originary contour of the modern subject. Why not then intervene affectively–that is tastefully?

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