Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sianne Ngai--Ugly Feelings (2007)

Ngai’s highly theoretical work looks at specifically “ugly feelings” in order to examine the phenomenon of what she characterizes as a “noncathartic aesthetic: art that produces and foregrounds a failure of emotional release (another form of suspended ‘action’) and does so as a kind of politics” (9).  In order to do the kind of in-depth analysis she intends, she uses literature as her focus, as she says that, “literature may in fact be the ideal space to investigate ugly feelings that obviously ramify beyond the domain of the aesthetic proper, since the situation of restricted agency from which all of them ensue is one that describes art’s own position in a highly differentiated and totally commodified society” (2).
The feelings she examines are those she identifies as “Bartlebean” emotions, inspired by the Melville short story.  The feelings are: envy, anxiety, paranoia, irritation, “a racialialized affect I call ‘animatedness,’ and a strange amalgamation of shock and boredom I call ‘stuplimity’” (2)—these feelings “can be thought of as a mediation between the aesthetic and the political in a nontrivial way” (2).  Of these feelings, the only one which is really significant to my own work is her examination of disgust, which Ngai says is
constituted by the vehement rejection or exclusion of its object.  Hence while disgust is always disgust toward, in the same that envy is envy of…its grammar brings it closer to the intransitive feelings in this study than to the other emotions with which it is traditionally associated.  For while envy and disgust are clearly object-directed, their trajectories are directed toward the negation of these objects, either by denying them or by subjecting them to epistemological skepticism. (22)
This schemata of disgust may coordinate with my own interactive ideas of beauty and ugliness, that ugliness requires a more complicated interaction than less striking appearances.  Further, she says that disgust is “the boundary confusions built into the structure of these feelings, whether in the form of inside/outside, self/world, or psyche/body, reappear in the aesthetic forms and genres they determine” (22); in this way, disgust is related to Kristeva’s theories of abjection, in the way that it blurs these boundaries.  I need to figure out the significance of this repeated theme or violated or blurred boundaries which keeps appearing.
Ngai. Claims that Kant’s theory of the sublime is “perhaps the first ‘ugly’ or explicitly nonbeautiful feeling appearing in theories of aesthetic judgment” (4), which is something that I know I’ll eventually have to follow up on.  I’m also interested in her claim that “the feelings I examine here are explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release” (6).  Unlike beauty, which is supposed to inspire virtue, or the grotesque, which has similar abilities to provoke dramatic changes, ugliness may be analogous to these less dramatic emotions.  Her distinctions speak to how I’m trying to distinguish “ugliness” from other more highly theorized kind of negative appearances.  Ugliness is similarly a minor affect, and as they result in less of a shock that causes defensiveness, I think the interaction evoked by ugliness is similarly more likely to produce political and aesthetic ambiguities than passions.

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