Our Aesthetic Categories Are Zany, Cute, & Interesting (Sianne Ngai)

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Last semester for Theory Reading Group with Gail Hamner in the Department of Religion we read Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. I don’t think I’ve read anything of late that has so shifted my perception regarding the visual and conceptual things on which I work in Modern/Contemporary Jewish Thought & Philosophy, Jewish Studies, and Religion Studies. Ngai’s thesis is that aesthetic categories reflect economic, political, and social dynamics. Writing out of the 18th century, the primary categories advanced by aesthetic theorists, most famously Kant, were “the beautiful” and the “sublime.” As Ngai read them, these bourgeois categories have been thoroughly scrambled in the pressures of a contemporary culture stressed out by late modern capitalism. Inside and outside the art world, the primary aesthetic categories today are no longer “zany,” “cute,” and “interesting.”

That is to say that “cute,” “zany,” and “interesting” are the categories with which we judge things aesthetically. For Ngai, these objects can be works of fine art, popular television, and consumer products. Examples include adorable little Murakami monsters, madcap adventures of the forever frenetic Lucille Ball, and bone-dry Conceptualist art. For better or worse, these are our aesthetic categories. For better or worse, these are the kinds of things that inhabit the art world today. As for the category of aesthetic beauty, it tends to be met skeptically, while the sublime is typically met with outright aversion among the cognoscenti.

Cute is the judgment with which we respond to artworks and objects or short works of fiction. “How cute!” These tend to refer to small things, intimate and powerless, warm, fuzzy, amorphous and blobby. They are de-verbalized, infantile and infantilizing, and non-communicative in the coos and awws they elicit. We seek to close the distance between us and it. Socially, these kinds of things which we tend to judge “cute” reflect the powerlessness of the avant-garde and then the use of this powerlessness as an actual form of power. So cute, we just want to gobble it up. In postmodern capitalism, the cute correlates to consumption.

Interesting, that is to say, “merely interesting” is the judgment with which we judge works that are cool and eclectic, mixing difference and novelty, at once particular and generic. Under this category, everything is comparable to anything, and anything to everything, brought into a network. What’s interesting hinges on the improbablility of a statement, a thesis, and combination. “This goes with that?” It enjoys no single non-aesthetic feature that might justify our calling any single object or combination of objects “interesting.” Without content, unbounded by rules, and without direction and goal in the endlessness of its particularization. Ultimately, what’s interesting is the tension between a perception and a conception, a percept and a concept. “Of all things, why do I find this particular thing interesting?” This not knowing for sure intensifies attention and creates new knowledge, as we move out into large filiations. In postmodern capitalism, the cute correlates to communication.

Zany, refers to category under which we judge things, especially performances that involve non-stop doing.  These things are light-hearted, but in their vehemence, the viewing subject seeks to distance herself or himself from the object. The relation to work is non-specialized. Switching from task to task, between mode and mode, those acts and actors that we deem zany suggest or threaten the potential to cause harm or to be harmed. Aggression undergirds their frenetic activity. The action is fundamentally deformed. In postmodern capitalism, the cute correlates to labor.

As a Religion Studies scholar, the first thing that catches my attention is the shift away from the sublime. That’s an old story already, but what Ngai has done new is to present that shift under the forms of categories. What matters to religion in all this is that it is precisely the sublime that offers a secular stand-in for values more traditionally recognized as “religious.” This goes back, of course to Martin Buber and Rudolf Otto, modern negative theology, and the mysterium tremendum. In Jewish philosophy revelation, law, and aniconism have typically been judged under “the sublime.”

Ngai gives a shake to all that. If religion or Judaism, or Jewish texts or philosophical concepts no longer fall under the sublime, than under what categories are we to judge them? And if our contemporary aesthetic categories are, indeed, “zany,” “interesting,” and “cute,” then what opens out for us is a whole new range of interpretive possibilities. Jewish philosophical “criticism” (as Ngai defines “criticism”) would be the unfolding of the germ of an idea (p.111).

So let’s give it a try:

–Maybe Judaism is “cute,” if not always, then today, under the conditions of late modern capitalism. More to the point, maybe they become cute. “Messianism” is cute, and so is “Walter Benjamin,” overconsumed as they now are in academic culture. Benjamin in particular is cute, as in diminutive, gnomic. Hasidism is cute, at least as Buber sought to promote it. Abraham Joshua Heschel becomes cute, adorable in the way his image gets pitched in the Jewish public sphere. Law gets kind of  “cute.” Liberal Judaism is cute, presents itself as cute, as a commodity to be consumed.

–Talmud is always “interesting.” It attends to the particular, the ordinary, and the petty. Its contemporary reader should always have to wonder, “of what possible interest is this or that discussion”? Almost always, it does things you don’t necessarily expect, that catches you by surprise. “Interesting” would be a very good thing for Jewish philosophy to be.

–Zohar is “zany.” The State of Israel is also “zany.” Today it is no longer “cute,” like it may have been presented once. Under the last six years, it has turned into something vicious and dangerous, lurching this way and that over the Green Line, almost frenetic in its political energies.

–On a personal note, sometimes I fear it is “cute” or “zany,” but I would like to think and hope that Jewish Philosophy Place is “interesting” in terms of the sense of worlds unfolded here. I hope the same for my work as a whole.

While I have no doubt that the beautiful and sublime continue to exercise their hold, I’m also of the opinion that, try as one might, there’s no way to resist these new aesthetic categories. They permeate our world and everything that enters into it, including once old and hoary things like contemporary religion and continental philosophy.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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One Response to Our Aesthetic Categories Are Zany, Cute, & Interesting (Sianne Ngai)

  1. dmf says:

    the shift from the Sublime to the attractive (or in our day perhaps the “social”, as in social media, and or the personalized), such that the All Things Shining get replaced with shiny-objects is a commercialized twist I think on the shift from Transcendence to Immanence, no longer trying to escape the Earth, no longer feeling alien/un-home-ly.
    But really hasn’t religion been largely a sort of cargo-cult for most people thru most of our history? Is this so different from a sort of Warholish recognition/revaluing of the pop “low” culture?

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