Excerpt from the introduction to Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting by Sianne Ngai, published by Harvard University Press in 2012 (pp. 3-25).
Revolving around the desire for an ever more intimate, ever more sensuous to objects already regarded as familiar and unthreatening, cuteness is not just an aestheticization but an eroticization of powerlessness, evoking tenderness for "small things" but also, sometimes, a desire to belittle or diminish them further. The aesthetic categories in this study thus do not refer only to a range of objects and objective phenomena (commodities, the act of consumption, and the feminized domestic sphere, in the case of cuteness; information, the circulation and exchange of discourse, and the bourgeois public sphere, in the case of the interesting; performance, affective labor, and the post-Fordist workplace, in the case of contemporary zaniness). By calling forth specific capacities for feeling and thinking as well as specific limitations on these capacities—a noticeably weaker or cooler version of curiosity, in the case of the interesting; an unusually intense and yet strangely ambivalent kind of empathy, in the case of the cute—they also play to and help complete the formation of a distinctive kind of aesthetic subject, gesturing also to the modes of intersubjectivity that this aesthetic subjectivity implies.1
Since cute things evoke a desire in us not just to lovingly molest but also to aggressively protect them, modern poetry might be regarded as cute in another problematic sense. The smallness of most poems in comparison with novels and films, in which the proportion of quotable component to the work as a whole (the paragraph or the shot sequence) is always substantially lower, has made poetry the most aggressively copyright protected of all the genres and thus in a certain sense the genre most aggressively protected from criticism, since anyone wanting to refer directly to the language he or she is analyzing will often have to pay a substantial fee. Susan Stewart's wry caveat in the preface and acknowledgments of Poetry and the Fate of the Senses ("Like anyone who writes on poetic forms, I have been restricted... by the availability of permissions for reproduction") will thus be familiar to any critic who has tried to write on the genre that copyright laws have indirectly helped define as unusually "tender" speech.2
Poetry's complicated and ambivalent relation to an aesthetic that celebrates the diminutive and vulnerable becomes all the more problematic in the case of the avant-garde, which has historically defined itself in opposition to everything for which cuteness stands. Yet as reflected in experimental texts ranging from Gertrude Stein's tribute to lesbian domesticity in Tender Buttons to Harryette Mullen's homage to its sections on "Objects" and "Food" in her explorations of the language of women’s fashion and groceries in Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, it is clear that the avant-garde has had as much stake in the issues raised by this aesthetic of familiar "small things" as it has had in the powerful experiences of shock, rarity, and/or estrangement that we more readily associate with its projects. The cuteness avant-garde poetry finds itself grappling with thus gives us surprising leverage on the ambiguous status of the contemporary avant-garde in general, and on the closeness between the artwork and the commodity. For it is not just that cuteness is an aesthetic oriented toward commodities. As Walter Benjamin implies, something about the commodity form itself already seems permeated by its sentimentality: "If the soul of the commodity which Marx occasionally mentions in jest existed, it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would have to see in everyone the buyer in whose hand and house it wants to nestle."3
The affective response to weakness or powerlessness that is cuteness, for example, is frequently overpowered by a second feeling—a sense of manipulation or exploitation—that immediately checks or challenges the first. "The rapidity and promiscuity of the cute response makes the impulse suspect, readily overridden by the angry sense that one is being exploited or deceived," as science writer Natalie Angier notes about biological cuteness; indeed, this susceptibility to being taken over seems paradoxically internal to the affective experience of cuteness.4 The implicit reason is that we judge things cute all too easily, as if there were a deficit of discrimination in the subject's judgment corresponding to or even caused by the cute object's oft-noted lack of articulated features. As Angier observes, the "human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar… that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof," from the "young of virtually every mammalian species" to "woolly bear caterpillars, a bobbing balloon, a big round rock stacked on a smaller rock; a colon, a hyphen and a close parenthesis typed in succession." This atavistically regressive series of forms underscores that cuteness involves not only a certain softening or weakening of formal differentiation on the side of the object (the more bloblike it is, the cuter it will seem), but also of discrimination on the side of the subject. To be sure, cuteness can be a powerful and even demanding response to our perception of vulnerability in an object; according to the scientists Angier interviews, the pleasure that images of puppies or babies arouse can be intense as those "aroused by sex, a good meal, or psychoactive drugs like cocaine," acts or substances shown to stimulate the same regions of the brain. Yet because the aesthetic experience of cuteness is a pleasure routinely overridden by secondary feelings of suspicion, there is arguably something weak about it anyway. It is this weakness that allows and even seems to invite what Denis Dutton calls "the sense of cheapness... and the feeling of being manipulated or taken for a sucker that leads many to reject cuteness as low or shallow."5 Note how, even in the context of a project describing cuteness in explicitly biological terms, we find the language of commodities entering the picture ("cheapness"), as if there were no better metaphor for how one might feel "manipulated or taken for a sucker" than our relation to this especially peculiar object. As Lori Merish puts it, the "very banality of cuteness—its mass production and display in a whole range of commercial contexts—suggests the fragility and tenuousness of the cute's hold on us.6
Haunted by an image of failure that the experience itself seems to generate, the aesthetic of cuteness thus seems paradoxically coupled with an inability to carry out its own agenda.7
- I owe this point and much of the language in which it is formulated to an extraordinarily helpful communication about this project by Daniel T. O’Hara, e-mail to the author, 10/16/2010.
- Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), ix.
- Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, un poète lyrique, trans. Harry Zohn (London: New Left Books, 1973), 55; cited in Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 32.
- Natalie Angier, "The Cute Factor," New York Times, January 3, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/03/science/03cute.html?pagewanted=all (accessed 1/16/2012).
- Denis Dutton, interview cited in Angier, "Cute Factor."
- Merish, "Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics," 201.
- Here I am applying an argument Jennifer Fleissner makes specifically about the sentimental. Jennifer Fleissner, Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 166.