The Politics of Minor Judgments

– I think that so many of our contemporary aesthetic categories reflect the fact that we don’t really know how we feel about things, says Sianne Ngai, this year’s Forart lecturer.

Gimmicky: Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Der Lauf der Ding, 1987. Still.
Gimmicky: Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Der Lauf der Ding, 1987. Still.

Aesthetic experiences have become more emotionally complicated, and they are reflected in the concepts that people use every day, says Sianne Ngai. The literature professor from Stanford University visited Oslo last weekend to give the annual ForArt lecture at Litteraturhuset. The subject was her forthcoming book Theory of the Gimmick. A gimmick is defined as a trick or device intended to attract attention, but one can also characterize something as «gimmicky». An object of both fascination and irritation, the gimmick often leaves us profoundly ambivalent, says Ngai to Kunstkritikk.  

By exploring such widely felt but rarely discussed aesthetic experiences, Ngai has left a significant mark on the academic discipline of aesthetics. While philosophical aesthetics still revolve around the beautiful and the sublime, categories that Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke wrote about in the 18th century, Ngai has examined concepts such as cute, interesting and zany. In her last book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2012) Ngai reads these phenomena across artistic disciplines and cultural hierarchies – the cute is found in both children’s toys and in the poetry of Gertrude Stein.

Bringing popular aesthetic categories into the discipline of aesthetics seems absolutely crucial, and professor of art history Ina Blom justly described Ngai’s work as “groundbreaking” in her introduction to the ForArt lecture. However, Ngai’s most significant contribution is arguably to show how the least conspicuous aesthetic judgments – when we call something cute or interesting – embody contradictions that reflect insecurities in working conditions and social relations in a late capitalist world. Ngai’s books can thus also be said to be of great importance for criticism.

This was among the topics when Kunstkritikk met Ngai at Hotel Continental in Oslo, in surroundings that were fittingly upscale for a conversation about vernacular aesthetic experiences, as Ngai herself humorously remarked. 

Sianne Ngai.
Sianne Ngai.

What led you to work on “awkward” aesthetic categories like cute, zany and interesting, and now the gimmicky?

The field of philosophical aesthetics still operates as if there are only two or three categories that are worth talking about, like the beautiful and the sublime. Now, it’s not surprising why the sublime is popular in theory books and in art criticism, because so much of contemporary capitalist life is about the sense of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the system. Yet people don’t really mention the sublime in everyday speech; it’s a concept used only by academics and theorists. An American teenager will however say “cute” about 50 times a day.  

One thing that I try to do in Our Aesthetic Categories is to talk about aesthetic categories as two-sided things. On the one hand the sublime is a style that has to do with certain qualities, like magnificence or largeness. On the other hand, calling something sublime is also a judgment, a speech act. So, what does it mean to think seriously about aesthetic categories both as a form or style, but also as a verbal act? I try to talk about these two things in a systematic relationship to each other, paying closest attention to the judgments or styles that people use most in everyday life.

Could you explain this by taking “cute” as an example?

When we say that something is cute it’s very obvious what the style is. You find it in art – Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki factory is all about a meditation on cuteness. But you also find it in tacky children’s toys. Another thing about the cute, as judgment, is that in opposition to the sublime or the ugly it’s very ambiguous. When you say that something is cute you’re expressing affection and tenderness for something, but also contempt. It’s not immediately clear whether cute is meant as a compliment or said dismissively – it can mean either. The observation has also been made that when we say something is cute we often “act” cute. So the utterance itself actually has the effect of making the speaker or the judge imitate the properties of the object, even though cuteness is something that we ascribe to things that are less powerful than we are. I think that all of these combinations of power and powerlessness in the cute are ultimately about our relationship to commodities and our desire to feel that we are the masters of commodities, and not that they are the masters of us.

What about the “interesting”? Where do you find the quintessential interesting art work?

The interesting is a term that one often hears in academia and in art theory. But what is it actually as a style? Anything can be interesting, because the interesting is an aesthetic of pure difference: something is interesting if it’s slightly different than others of its type. It took me a long time to locate the best place to examine the discourse on the interesting, but it ended up being Conceptual Art. Conceptual artists even theorized the interesting. Sol LeWitt has a whole series of remarks about the interesting. And then I realized that there’s an even older history of the interesting with Friedrich Schlegel and German Romanticism. Schlegel and his colleagues were literary critics, but also artists themselves. So the interesting seems to appear when there’s an intersection between art and the theory of art.

Cute: Takashi Murakami, DOB In Pure White Robe, 2013.
Cute: Takashi Murakami, DOB In Pure White Robe, 2013.

As an art critic, reading your work on the interesting was especially compelling. I find that I often use “interesting” as what you describe as a “placeholder” or “euphemism” for other judgments. The term interesting is somehow so nondescript that it can slide incognito between the lower and the middle registers of aesthetic judgments.

That’s true. But the way I think it is predominantly used, is to invite a real or hypothetical listener to respond to or even question the judgment, creating time and space for exploring the justification for why you think something actually is interesting. It’s the one judgment that really intersects with its own justification. And it’s exactly its blankness, its non-specificity that allows for that. People often say that something is interesting when they don’t know what to say yet, when they need more time. There’s an assumption in aesthetic theory that aesthetic experience happens instantly: “It’s beautiful!” Whereas I think that so many of our contemporary aesthetic categories reflect the fact that we often do not know how we feel about things and rarely feel a sense of conviction immediately. Our pleasures and displeasures no longer seem to link up as securely to our judgments as they did in the 18th century. When you don’t pay attention to this you miss something really important about the aesthetics of capitalism, which is that there’s a lot of ambivalence built into the way we respond aesthetically. When you call something interesting, it’s almost an invitation for someone else to ask you, “why?” But when you say something is beautiful, no one will challenge you, because to say that something is beautiful is to say that “I’m convinced that this is beautiful”.

Is that really so? I was thinking of this when I read your book. You write that “minor” categories like cute and zany are more explicitly historically contingent. Now, that may be correct, but it also seems to me that the beautiful has become somewhat marginalized in the last fifty years, at least in the art critical vocabulary. The beautiful is a bit awkward, we no longer know what it means. So it seems to me that claiming something is beautiful also invites argument or requires substantiation.

I think all aesthetic judgments, including the beautiful, implicitly invite justification. So you’re right, it’s not exactly that the beautiful doesn’t allow for it, it’s rather that the interesting openly asks for it. When someone says something is beautiful you can’t really say anything back: “You think this is beautiful? Sure, but I don’t.” The big surprise of my project was that I initially thought that the beautiful and the interesting were opposed. What is remarkable is that when you theorize about the interesting it clarifies aspects of the beautiful better than the discourse on the beautiful itself. Everything Immanuel Kant writes about the beautiful in the Critique of Judgment can also be shown by theorizing the interesting – even if this sounds scandalous, because for Kant the beautiful is about disinterested pleasure. There is one thing about which I think Kant was correct, and it applies to other aesthetic categories besides the beautiful: Aesthetic judgments look like descriptions, but they’re obviously evaluations. The grammar of aesthetic judgments, like “that is beautiful”, is the objective third person. So the aesthetic judgment perversely puts judgments founded on affect and emotion in the form of an objective scientific fact about the world. I find it fascinating that even in the case of ambivalent terms like zany, aesthetic judgments all take the verbal form of an objective statement. And they therefore produce debate.

Interesting: John Baldessari's series Commissioned Paintings, 1969.
Interesting: John Baldessari’s series Commissioned Paintings, 1969.

This is also your conclusion in Our Aesthetic Categories: the term “interesting” has political implications in that it opens up for a ”Habermasian project of expanding the public sphere”. In this you seem to agree with Hannah Arendt’s reading of Kant, where aesthetic judgments presuppose the presence of others, and therefore create the foundations of indeterminate public or political spheres. But are there more specific differences in the political implications of the various aesthetic concepts?

Yes, and we see them most clearly in the zany and the cute. Because the cute is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness, it has obvious political implications. To call something cute is often to infantilize or feminize it. Cuteness is really all about the commodity and about consumption, whereas zaniness is about work and production. With the zany, the question is why an aesthetic that is so much about playfulness, delight and energy can also be seen as unpleasant and stressful. The answer is that the zany seems to be about play, but it’s actually about a relationship to work. We can trace this aesthetic back to the Italian Commedia dell’arte of the 16th century, and the figure of the servant, the zanni, whose job in the performances was to fix all the problems caused by his employer’s transgressions. So from the very beginning we have this servant whose work involves mediating social relationships. It’s remarkable to trace the transformation of this character into a generalized style – you can even talk about zany wallpaper. But I think that the figure of the beset worker is always implicit in the style and judgment of the zany. Another thing that struck me was that contemporary versions of the zany seem to be obsessed with gender. The example I use in the book is The Full Monty, the movie about the laid off steel workers who become strippers. Here you see the vestige of the older zany character; it’s still a style predominantly about performance.

So why has zaniness become associated with feminization as it is in The Full Monty? The answer here is that it is still an aesthetic about work, and one of the features of contemporary labor, especially in post-industrial societies is what feminists have called the feminization of labor, which is that labor becomes more temporary, more contingent. One of the most disturbing things about the zany is that it points to a relationship to labor that we all increasingly share. So the zany ends up being connected to lots of political issues, about the gender of work and about the nature of contemporary post-Fordist work. For me this intersection between gender and labor is central not only to feminist politics, but to Marxist politics.

The way you describe it, the zany performance obviously reflects unresolved social issues, but it is very much a minor aesthetic category. Why is that?

The zany is ubiquitous as a style. The zany is all over the internet – popups are zany! Yet hardly anyone uses zany in the form of a judgment, which I find fascinating. And I think the reason is that we’re so familiar with this way of being in the world, and these types of working conditions, that the zany has lost its evaluative charge: it’s neither positive nor negative. We’ve accepted that this is what world is like. Ryan Trecartin’s work is in many ways about zaniness, and also is zany. It seems that great art often takes that risk; to really reflect on a phenomenon, you sometimes have to take on its qualities and inhabit it rather than watch it from a distance.

Zany: Ryan Trecartin, I-BE AREA, 2007, still.
Zany: Ryan Trecartin, I-BE AREA, 2007, still.

Your current work is about the gimmick as an aesthetic concept. Could you give an example of a gimmicky artwork, or perhaps better, how something is evaluated as gimmicky?
Different people will find different things gimmicky. I told my mother about a novel by Georges Perec called The Void, a murder mystery about disappearance, where the author never uses the letter “e”, and my mother said “Oh, that sounds like a gimmick to me”. The objects people find gimmicky or contrived or unconvincing will obviously vary. The point is that if you ask both my mother and me, why we find whatever object X gimmicky, our explanations will be strikingly similar: We feel that we’ve been cheated, that there is something too easy about it, but also that it’s working too hard to get our attention. So the gimmick is profoundly ambivalent. When you say something is gimmicky you’re are almost implicitly saying “I see through this, I’m not going to be seduced” – but somebody else is. There’s always this sucker out there who is actually buying what you’re not buying.

What are the political implications of the gimmick?

Certain art works invite accusations of being gimmicky more than others, and it is often conceptual works. Why? Because there seems to be insufficient labor involved. So here we have the theme of labor again. Another aspect is that things seem gimmicky when they seem outdated. For instance, when we see the technique they use to rock the spaceship in the old Star Trek shows, it’s laughable. Special effects age quickly, and when they’re no longer special they become gimmicks. At the same time, we say that things are gimmicky when they seem too futuristic, like Google Glass or the Apple Watch. Here we have two contradictions that the gimmick form embodies: works too hard, doesn’t work hard enough; too old, too new. The gimmick is a form based on contradictions concerning labor, time and value, and I think this points to the fact that the gimmick is the ultimate capitalist aesthetic phenomenon. It’s not an accident that these contradictions are really pointing to the fundamental contradictions of capitalism itself. People are actually working longer hours than ever, even when they have more labor saving devices than ever before. We have the contradictions of routinization of innovation, or planned obsolescence. These paradoxes about time and labor are mirrored in the gimmick as an aesthetic form and a judgment.

I recently overheard a group of teenagers talking in an art museum, where one of them pointed to a contemporary art installation and said “That’s random”. I think this response is quite fascinating, because it seems to identify a radical difference in the work, but dismiss it because it’s too confusing to process. So it’s not unrelated to the interesting, but more negatively charged.

The teenager in your anecdote might also be registering another truth, which is that in our time ambivalence and uncertainty are built into our sense of what it means to be an aesthetic subject. And I don’t think that aesthetic theory quite gets this yet. But when you take it seriously and you study how it works, you see that it’s actually about a condition of living in the world where at the age of five you know that commercials lie. I think women who have grown up with second wave feminism know this deeply: you learn to distrust what the culture says is beautiful, but you’re also seduced by it. Aesthetic experiences have become more emotionally complicated, and they are reflected in these concepts that people use every day. The teenager who says something is cute is implicitly registering and saying something about almost her entire culture.

Gimmicky: American cartoonist Rube Goldberg was known for his elaborately constructed devises that performed simple tasks – gimmicks, according to Ngai.
Gimmicky: American cartoonist Rube Goldberg was known for his elaborately constructed devises that performed simple tasks – gimmicks, according to Ngai.