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Our Aesthetic Categories

Our Aesthetic Categories

Zany, Cute, Interesting

Sianne Ngai

ISBN 9780674088122

Publication date: 10/05/2015

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The zany, the cute, and the interesting saturate postmodern culture. They dominate the look of its art and commodities as well as our discourse about the ambivalent feelings these objects often inspire. In this radiant study, Sianne Ngai offers a theory of the aesthetic categories that most people use to process the hypercommodified, mass-mediated, performance-driven world of late capitalism, treating them with the same seriousness philosophers have reserved for analysis of the beautiful and the sublime.

Ngai explores how each of these aesthetic categories expresses conflicting feelings that connect to the ways in which postmodern subjects work, exchange, and consume. As a style of performing that takes the form of affective labor, the zany is bound up with production and engages our playfulness and our sense of desperation. The interesting is tied to the circulation of discourse and inspires interest but also boredom. The cute's involvement with consumption brings out feelings of tenderness and aggression simultaneously. At the deepest level, Ngai argues, these equivocal categories are about our complex relationship to performing, information, and commodities.

Through readings of Adorno, Schlegel, and Nietzsche alongside cultural artifacts ranging from Bob Perelman's poetry to Ed Ruscha's photography books to the situation comedy of Lucille Ball, Ngai shows how these everyday aesthetic categories also provide traction to classic problems in aesthetic theory. The zany, cute, and interesting are not postmodernity's only meaningful aesthetic categories, Ngai argues, but the ones best suited for grasping the radical transformation of aesthetic experience and discourse under its conditions.

Praise

  • Sianne Ngai has written an important book which harks back to the heyday of the leftist literary theory of the 1980s, and is none the worse for that. Dense and demanding, occasionally meandering, [it is] equally at home with I Love Lucy and conceptual art, Theodor Adorno and Jim Carrey… Laudable and ambitious… In order for art to fulfill its role and for criticism to survive, ‘aesthetic theory’ needs to develop new and powerful concepts which reflect both art’s changing nature and its ubiquity. This challenging and important book takes the first steps in this task.

    —Robert Eaglestone, Times Literary Supplement

Awards

  • 2012, Winner of the James Russell Lowell Prize
  • 2013, Winner of the Ray and Pat Browne Award - Best Reference/Primary Source Work in Popular and American Culture

Author

  • Sianne Ngai is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Ugly Feelings and Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, winner of the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize. Her work has been translated into multiple languages.

Book Details

  • 344 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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