Reading Sianne Ngai: Aesthetics, Emotions, and Capitalism
What kinds of aesthetic forms and judgements are particular to capitalism? The literary theorist Sianne Ngai has been pursuing some version of the answer to this question in three books that form a rough trilogy. In Ugly Feelings, Ngai theorizes difficult emotions like disgust, envy, and irritation, which do not result in satisfying catharses and are, at best, politically ambivalent. In Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, she takes up the philosopher J.L. Austin’s challenge to forget about classical aesthetic categories (like the beautiful and the sublime) and “get down instead to the dainty and the dumpy,” vernacular terms like “cute,” “zany,” and “interesting” that reveal the contradictions of advanced capitalism and the conditions of our relationships to the aesthetic. In The Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgement and Capitalist Form, she builds on the affective and aesthetic theory of the first two books. Her provocative thesis is that when we call something a gimmick, we are expressing complex feelings about the murky knot of value, labor, and time that characterizes a specific form of political economy. How can Ngai’s work help us understand ourselves as participants in and objects of advanced capitalist life?
In this class, we will ask, with Sianne Ngai, the following questions: What is an ugly feeling and how should we understand relationships among affect, culture, and politics? What is an aesthetic category? What is an aesthetic judgement? And what do aesthetic categories and judgements have to say about capital’s greatest anxieties? What is a gimmick and what are the uses of a gimmick? How does a theory of gimmickry account for aesthetic value’s tendency to collapse into economic value? In addition to extracts from Ngai, our syllabus is likely to include some of her broad range of analytical objects (Samuel Beckett, Helen Dewitt, Sol LeWitt, Henry James, Takashi Murakami, Richard Pryor, Gertrude Stein et al.) as well as some of Ngai’s influences and interlocutors. Likely candidates include Adorno, Austin, Benjamin, Caffentzis, Cavell, Jameson, Kant, La Berge, Marx, Postone, and Sibley.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
November 14 — December 05, 2022