13 May, 2013Issue 22.2Critical TheoryPhilosophyThe Arts

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Reforming Beauty

Kirsten Lew

Reforming BeautySianne Ngai
Our Aesthetic Categories
Harvard University Press, 2012
£29.95
344 pages
ISBN 978-0674046580

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For a long time now aesthetics has meant Beauty. This has held true even for “minor” categories, for which worth is determined by their remove from this dominating aesthetic. What do we gain by moving away from this Kantian model and opting instead for a repertoire of “weak”, quotidian judgements? This is the underlying question in Sianne Ngai’s latest book, in which she rescues three “minor” aesthetic categories from that proscriptive label in order to show how their inextricability from systems of labour, consumption, and circulation makes them the new standards of taste in late capitalist culture.

For her there are three main categories that best exemplify the postmodern aesthetic experience. The “cute” object evokes a disparity of power [power struggle] between helplessness and aggression, reflective of the consumer’s attitude towards the commodity. The “interesting” is an aesthetic of “serial, comparative individualization” bound up in the idea of difference without affect, which in turn invites circulation. Finally, the “zany” (an odd choice to complete the trifecta given that the term has all but fallen out of use, as Ngai herself admits) which evokes the idea of a figure so flexible and vigorous in their labour, and constantly performing a wide variety of disparate roles, that the Fordist/Taylorist worker is replaced by “a succession of transient actions”.

Yet such a summation hardly encompasses how far Ngai goes to demonstrate that these categories, which are far from untreated in the field of aesthetics, are integral to a revised understanding of a critical discourse on aesthetics that spans two centuries. Though its title risks making it sound like a book of pop criticism, whose “categories” were chosen for their popularity rather than their ability to speak to the contemporary study of aesthetics, this work aims to reform the field by showing how “the interesting, the cute, and the zany can in fact shed light on some of this [Kantian] theory’s defining problems more vividly, making explicit what the older and more prestigious categories leave implicit or even structurally obfuscate.”

Ngai eschews the notion that these categories are “minor”, not because it would deny their effectuality or importance within the field of aesthetics, but because she finds it reductive and problematic to treat these categories as “lower” variations of Kantian Beauty:

the very idea of a finite, historically delimited, highly variegated repertoire of aesthetic categories […] ends up being strangely marginal to the canon of modern philosophical thought even as the problem of aesthetic variety and pluralism lies at the very inception of philosophical aesthetics as a discourse.

Far from treating these categories as critics before her have treated kitsch (Adorno) and camp (Sontag), by setting them in opposition to high art, Ngai concludes instead that the “specific social transformations and/or aesthetic problems to which [the cute, the interesting, and the zany] intimately speak […] are ones that significantly affect the making, dissemination, and reception of all culture.” What makes these categories “ours” is that they are so near to our everyday lives. Within the “hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven” conditions of late capitalism, these easily overlooked judgements become the new exemplary vessels of aesthetic experience through not only their sheer prevalence, but their inextricable economic insinuations.

It makes sense that in talking about the quotidian and the postmodern Ngai would expand beyond discussions of art—part of her concluding argument is that aesthetic experience has exponentially expanded to encompass literally everything—and it is true that she does not shy away from pulling up commercial artefacts like Hello Kitty and the Jim Carrey film The Cable Guy from her vast reserve of cultural evidence if it serves her purposes. However, Ngai seems more interested in postmodern art in which these three categories are consciously applied, which has the salubrious effect of elucidating them as aesthetics rather than as adjectives that happen to convey aesthetic judgements. She also possesses a capacious knowledge of theory as well as culture. She embeds her readings of material such as the photo series of Ed Ruscha, the works of Yoshimoto Nara and Takashi Murakami, and the books of performance artist Karen Finley in provocative discussions of Shlegel’s delineations of “interessante” literature and Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. There is a shocking concentration of critical citations in this work. Ngai would hazard seeming arbitrary in her cultural (and even critical) choices were it not for the virtuosity with which she puts her materials in conversation with one another.

The one area where Ngai does not really break new ground is in the postmodern itself. Her assumptions about late capitalism sound almost identical to Fredric Jameson’s—the commoditisation of everything, information saturation, network systems, etc—and it is more than a little disconcerting to think that our conceptualisation of postmodernism has not changed much since the 1990s. Ngai, in fact, does not pause to explain her “postmodern” to us, and instead relies on the canonized definition. It might be asking too much to wish that Ngai had used her three categories to tell us things about late capitalism that were a little more surprising than the now-stale thesis that the world is hypercommodified. Or, given the current cultural debate surrounding the ironic (which, while perhaps not an overt aesthetic category, seems at least to bear the same status as the interesting), it may have been revealing to see how Ngai would account for this category.

But Ngai does come to a conclusion about the current state of critical aesthetics and states in the last paragraph of the book that in our historical moment there is a need to revive the study of aesthetics as a mode of countering the postmodern omnipresence of aesthetic experiences:

By paying closer attention to the aesthetic categories that speak to the most significant objects and socially binding activities of late capitalist life […] one can at least make a start at closing the gulf between aesthetic theory and practice that began to open in the twentieth century

Criticism, says Ngai, needs to address this new omnipresence; but the antithetical structure of art and kitsch risks obstructing any conduit to this realization, and even more to its treatment. Rather than maintaining these dipoles and situating her categories somewhere in the middle, Ngai asks us to conceive of an aesthetics that, like late capitalism, “has come to saturate virtually every nook and cranny of the world that postmodern subjects inhabit.”

Ngai is not necessarily calling for the re-politicisation of art; rather, she says that if we approach the cute, the interesting, and the zany in the same ways as we approach Beauty, then we revitalise the stagnant arguments within the study of aesthetics. At the very least, this book makes us conscious of the minute aesthetic judgements that we perform on a daily basis—beyond just “our” three categories—and changes how we think about aesthetic experience itself; at the very most, it makes a case for altering the field.

Kirsten Lew read for an M.St. in English and American Studies at Linacre College, Oxford. She is currently in the PhD program at UCLA.