Words, Words, Words

10.23.12

Zany, Cute, Interesting: What the Words We Use Say About Us

Forget beautiful or sublime. Zany, cute, and interesting are the words that define our discourse today, a new book, ‘Our Aesthetic Categories,’ argues. Benjamin Lytal on what these words reveal about our trivial, small lives.

I was recently telling a friend, more scholarly than I, about Sianne Ngai's new book—"Whoa," my friend interrupted, before I even finished with the title: Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Ngai's book makes a big claim. That we as a society can be defined by the aesthetic terms we use is an intoxicating idea. That these terms happen, however, to be such wishy-washy ones—"cute, interesting, zany"—seems depressing.

Ngai, an English professor at Stanford, thinks there’s a credibility gap between the high language of aesthetics and the compromised, postmodern world we live in. Trying to restrict ourselves to terms like "beautiful" or "sublime" hobbles the conversation we need to have—about how culture has changed.

One of the big changes is this: we don't use straightforward words of praise anymore. To say, "Hm, interesting . . . " is noncommittal, weaselly. The word has no descriptive content. Or take "cute": a purportedly positive word, warm and fuzzy, the stuff of daytime television commercials, animated toilet paper, inane Japanese cartoons. It elicits a certain contempt. Ngai associates it with other "lite" aesthetic categories promulgated by postwar consumer culture: quaint, wacky, quirky, cool. The "cute" is an infectious aesthetic: one we often resent, because it makes us buy stuff. And because it makes us mush our words, as when we talk to babies.

Other writers have been here: Daniel Harris in Cute, Quaint, Romantic and Hungry, or Ngai herself in her first book, Ugly Feelings, which analyzed seemingly "unproductive" emotions like "irritation" and "envy." What distinguishes Our Aesthetic Categories is the flag it plants: claiming that the zany, cute, and interesting form a "triad," a "historically specific configuration" that defines the way we live now: how we work (the zany), how we exchange information (the interesting), and how we consume (the cute). Her triad helps us understand what postmodernism is doing to us.

Overuse of the word "interesting" reflects the cynical tastes of an information-rich audience. The "cute" betrays our sickened, sugar-happy relationship to the commodification of everything. And "zany," though not a word much-used, is a word much-needed: one that recognizes the precarious world of the office, where we're expected now to always maintain a "positive attitude" even and especially when totally stressing out.

Characteristically, Ngai adduces two very different examples of the zany: Lucille Ball and Friedrich Nietzsche. Ball, of course, for her frantic TV persona, the housewife who, like a latter-day unpaid intern, has to try on a new line of work in every episode. Nietzsche for his haunting concept of "role faith" (the opposite of "role play"), a creeping "American" phenomenon in which employees never stop working, never stop acting their roles. Behind these descriptions must lie Ngai's untenured friends, harried academic adjuncts forced to try to act like authoritative professors even as they ricochet through the pinball machine of the casualized academic labor market.

What does this have to do with aesthetics? Nietzsche notes that, as the protestant work ethic gives joy and "idle" reflection a bad conscience, so too does it hamper our ability to literally pause, stop long enough to even perceive, let alone relish beauty. In "the haste of the workers, the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements are [. . .] perishing." For Ngai, the zany is an aesthetic about the withering of sensibility. It’s a self-aware style, one that forecloses any attempt at larger beauty.

When critics first started bandying the word “interesting” about, it was wholly positive, meaning anything that was exciting, eclectic, Romantic. Two hundred years later, we’re less impressed by novelty.

Indeed what's most depressing about Ngai's terms is their smallness, their triviality. Ngai notes, for example, that the board game Trivial Pursuit has for many decades been teaching us that the "interesting" and the purely trivial are two sides of the same coin. This wasn't always the case. When critics first started bandying the word "interesting" about, it was wholly positive, meaning anything that was exciting, eclectic, Romantic. Two hundred years later, we're less impressed by novelty. "Interesting" merely means new information—accepted calmly. Ngai (a deft writer) calls it a "small surprise of information."

"Interesting," then, has suffered diminution. It's a milder word than it used to be, but also a more pervasive one. The Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stenger has provocatively written that "no scientific proposition describing scientific activity can, in any relevant sense, be called 'true' if it has not attracted 'interest'". Scientific papers necessarily strive to interest other scientists in newly discovered data. Only reproducible experiments, and ones that justify interest, are validated. Immanuel Kant long ago observed a similar thing about beauty: we always need other people to agree with us when we say something is beautiful. But Ngai has noted that we don’t use the word "beautiful" much anymore. Instead we say "interesting." It gets us over that initial, high-stakes moment of emotive acclamation, and skips straight to the conversation.

But isn't this precisely what's wrong with academic criticism—that it's afraid to judge? Ngai responds that tagging something as interesting may in itself be a judgment. Indeed it is a matter of inspiration: the photographer and painter Ed Ruscha said of his documentary-style series Twentysix Gasoline Stations that for him they "had an inexplicable thing I was looking for, and that was a kind of 'Huh?'" The "Huh?" as muse: Ruscha called it an "itch-in-the-scalp" feeling—not, certainly, a punctuated moment of sublime appreciation. But it's a moment we recognize as valid. It's about pointing, highlighting, linking. The kind of judgment we make all the time.

The "cute" is a more manipulative aesthetic. Cute objects, Ngai memorably declares, "evoke a desire in us not just to lovingly molest but also to aggressively protect them." It's a feeling that sells like hotcakes. Ngai quotes Walter Benjamin, noting that if the retail commodity had a soul, it would be an awfully sweet one: "for it would have to see in everyone the buyer in whose hand and house it wants to nestle."

That Benjamin quote has probably made the rounds. What makes Ngai's discussion novel is her application of the "cute" to highbrow poetry. Short-lined verse about everyday objects: cute, is it not? Ngai cites William Carlos Williams's red wheelbarrow, and his cat climbing out of the jam closet.

But the avant-garde had cuteness issues. Gertrude Stein was the rare modernist who took the "cute" seriously. H.L. Mencken called her the Mother Goose of Montparnasse. Hannah Arendt complained disdainfully about the "art of being happy ... between dog and cat and flowerpot." Nonetheless it's possible to find a thru-line of the "cute" in modern poetry. When the Pulitzer-winning poet Rae Armantrout writes:

"When an effort
was a small engine

then I loved it
like a mommy,"

She seems to be mommying, with aggressive honesty, her own metaphors.

It's a pity that of Ngai's three terms, the "zany" is so odd. Ngai herself notes that when Mitt Romney used the word earlier this year to discredit and lightly dismiss Newt Gingrich, Romney himself came under fire. Jennifer Rubin wrote that "Using 'zany' is quintessential Romney—he's a little old fashioned and he could have used a much harsher word." But Ngai makes the word sound, if not harsh, plenty incisive. The harried worker is beset, pushed beyond normal competencies, distorted by the prospect of constant performance evaluations. Lucille Ball and Mitt Romney both. And Barack Obama, to boot. Once you read Ngai's account of it, you'll see "zany" everywhere. If the "interesting" captures our taste in information, and the "cute" our love-hate relationship with the things we buy, the "zany" has something serious to say about what we have to do to earn our livings. This book review, for example, with its clipped diction and its question marks, could be called zany: an ambitious critic, despairing of doing justice to a book of immense interest, ends by gently caricaturing himself.